Texas coach Rick Barnes took his Longhorns to Chapel Hill and upset North Carolina 86-83, a resumé-boosting victory that suggests the team's 10-1 start isn't merely a product of a modest early-season schedule.
It's remarkable that Texas can beat a Tar Heels team with wins over Kentucky, Michigan State and Louisville considering the nightmarish past 12 months the Longhorns endured.
Plagued by cold shooting and terrible shot selection, Texas lost 11 league games last season and missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in Barnes' 15-year tenure. Seemingly making matters worse, Myck Kabongo and Ioannis Papapetrou turned pro with eligibility remaining and Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis transferred, leaving Texas without its four leading scorers from last season.
It seemed unlikely Texas had enough firepower to bounce back this season, but Barnes was adamant he liked the chemistry and grit of this team more than the previous one. The Longhorns validated their coach's faith even before Wednesday night, posting solid wins over quality mid-majors Mercer and South Alabama and rebuilding traditional powers Temple and Vanderbilt.
Credit the development of Texas' young frontcourt for the Longhorns' unexpected improvement. Jonathan Holmes, Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert combine to average an efficient 34.7 points per game and they do an excellent job cleaning up the glass and protecting the rim as well. Texas was fifth in the nation at 7.8 blocks per game entering Wednesday and 10th in the nation in rebounding percentage.
Still, Wednesday night's visit to Chapel Hill represented by far Texas' biggest test of the season so far. North Carolina has endured enough lapses to lose to Belmont and UAB so far this season, but the Tar Heels have climbed back into the top 20 with victories over the three highest-rated teams in the preseason AP Top 25.
Texas took the fight to North Carolina right away, dominating the rebounding battle 29-15 and scoring with ease on put-backs and via transition. The Longhorns' 53 first-half points were the most North Carolina has allowed since Duke put up the same amount in a game during the 2009-10 season.
North Carolina fought back from a double-digit deficit behind 23 points from Marcus Paige and 15 from wing Leslie McDonald in his season debut after being reinstated by the NCAA earlier Wednesday. Paige could have forced overtime had his wide-open deep three at the buzzer gone down, but it rimmed out to his dismay and the disappointment of the Tar Heels faithful.
Had North Carolina made a few more free throws, the Tar Heels wouldn't have needed late heroics to force overtime. North Carolina players sank just 24 of 47 foul shots, a woeful performance that included James Michael McAdoo going 5 of 15 and receiving a mock ovation late in the second half after making the first of two.
North Carolina's loss ensures the Tar Heels will keep the well-deserved label as the nation's most erratic team.
As for Texas, this is a win that will tear some eyes away from its football program's search to find a replacement for Mack Brown.
A youthful Longhorns team probably isn't going to contend for the Big 12 title this season, but they're playing well enough to finish in the top five in the league and perhaps reach the NCAA tournament, If that happens, the "hot seat" chatter that has engulfed Barnes for months should finally dissipate.
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