Estimated read time: 4-5 minutes
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — North Carolina passed the kind of road challenge it wanted to face before starting Atlantic Coast Conference competition.
Kenny Williams sank a go-ahead 3-pointer with 35 seconds left as the seventh-ranked Tar Heels rallied past No. 20 Tennessee 78-73 Sunday.
This was the first game North Carolina (10-1) played all season that was decided by a single-digit margin. Even its lone loss of the season was a 63-45 blowout against No. 2 Michigan State.
"This will be good for us," Williams said. "Every game in the ACC is like that. To have this experience and know we can pull it out, I think it will come in handy down the road."
North Carolina capitalized on a 9-0 run in the final minute to win for the fifth straight time and ended Thompson-Boling Arena's hex on defending national champions.
Tennessee (7-2) had won each of the last five times it had hosted a defending national champion, a string that included victories over Connecticut (in January 2012), Florida (February 2007 and February 2008) and Kentucky (February 1999 and February 2013).
"We always say we need a game like this to help us later on down the road," said North Carolina's Joel Berry II, who scored 21 points. "We hadn't had a game like this. For us to be able to thrive in this situation and be able to get the momentum back on our side was a great thing. It was all about the defensive end. We got stops."
Luke Maye and Williams added 15 points each for North Carolina. Grant Williams scored 15 points to lead five Tennessee players in double figures.
Tennessee led by as many as nine points in the second half and was ahead 70-67 before North Carolina took control down the stretch.
North Carolina began its rally when Berry hit two free throws with a minute left to make it 70-69. Maye then stole an errant pass from Lamonte Turner to set up the shot by Williams, whose 3-pointer off Theo Pinson's assist put North Carolina ahead 72-70.
After Tennessee's Admiral Schofield missed with 18 seconds left, Pinson hit two free throws, made a steal and added two more foul shots to make it 76-70.
Tennessee cut the margin to 76-73 on Jordan Bowden's 3-pointer with seven seconds left, but Berry sank two free throws to seal the victory.
The Vols said afterward they could learn from this kind of loss.
"We get many opportunities during the year," Grant Williams said. "This one won't define us."
North Carolina is hoping this rally helps define the way it plays the rest of the year. Berry said Pinson reminded the Tar Heels these are the types of games they'll have much more often once conference play begins.
"(We're) getting our guys to realize that the game might not be pretty, you might not hit shots but the one thing you can do is defend, get offensive rebounds, get defensive rebounds," Berry said. "Sometimes you've got to squeak out a game like that. Some of our guys that are young grew up today and understand that every game is going to be like this from now on."
North Carolina: The Tar Heels rallied because they turned up their defensive intensity and took better care of the ball in the second half. After committing 12 turnovers in the first half, North Carolina had just four more the rest of the way.
Tennessee: The Vols showed they can compete with anyone, but their offense wouldn't allow them to win this game. After making four of its first five shots in the second half, Tennessee went 7 of 31 the rest of the way. Tennessee made three baskets in the final 10 minutes, 25 seconds.
This marked the second straight year North Carolina rallied to beat Tennessee. The Vols squandered a 15-point lead in a 73-71 loss at North Carolina last season. Berry didn't play in that game due to a sprained left ankle.
RANKED VS. RANKED
This game represented the first time two ranked teams met at Thompson-Boling Arena since Feb. 27, 2010, when No. 19 Tennessee won 74-65 over a second-ranked Kentucky team that featured John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe.
North Carolina hosts Wofford on Wednesday.
Tennessee hosts Furman on Wednesday.
Follow Steve Megargee at https://twitter.com/stevemegargee