CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP)—For the second time in three days, North Carolina watched an opponent erase a double-digit lead.
This time, however, the seventh-ranked Tar Heels had enough to charge back in front.
Rashad McCants scored 26 points to lead six North Carolina players in double figures in a 96-77 win over Virginia on Saturday.
Sean May scored 17 points for the Tar Heels (12-4, 2-3 Atlantic Coast Conference), who improved to 17-2 against the Cavaliers in the Smith Center. Raymond Felton added 11 points and eight assists.
Devin Smith scored 16 points to lead Virginia (12-5, 2-4), which had won six of eight meetings coming in, while J.R. Reynolds added 15.
It was a much-needed win for North Carolina. The Tar Heels were coming off Thursday’s 90-81 overtime loss at Florida State, a game in which they blew a 24-point lead. In addition, they were trying to avoid their fourth loss in league play.
North Carolina got off to a fast start Saturday, taking a 13-point lead midway through the first half. Virginia cut into the lead before going ahead early in the second half.
Instead of succumbing to an opponent with momentum on its side, the Tar Heels answered with a 26-6 run, fueled by fastbreak baskets and better defensive intensity.
“We just got upset and decided we were going to play defense and take over the game,” Felton said. “It’s something that we had to do. Coach (Roy Williams) can’t do it for us. … We’ve got to have heart and just got to play.”
The Tar Heels did that in the second half, shooting 17-for-27 (63 percent). North Carolina also forced 12 second-half turnovers, many of which led to baskets that helped the Tar Heels forget about the loss to the Seminoles.
“Florida State was one of those games that leaves a bad taste in your mouth,” said McCants, who was 10-of-14 from the field and broke the 25-point mark for the third straight game. “I don’t think nobody got any sleep after that game. But we had to move on.”
Virginia trailed 42-40 at halftime, but took a 49-48 lead on Smith’s slam off a steal at midcourt with 17:50 to play.
But the Tar Heels finally got their transition game going, fueling the 26-6 spurt. Jackie Manuel got the run going with a fastbreak slam off a feed from McCants for a 55-52 lead with 14:48 to play.
The run featured plenty of easy scores. McCants had two dunks, one coming off an alley-oop pass from Felton and the other off a Virginia turnover. Felton hit a driving layup in transition, then found a cutting Manuel for a layup and a foul on the next possession.
At one point during that spurt, North Carolina hit seven of eight shots. All but one came from inside the paint.
North Carolina ended the run with 15 straight points, the last coming off a fast-break layup by David Noel, for a 79-58 lead with 7:48 left. Virginia got no closer than 15 points after that.
“We had a chance and when adversity strikes, we’ve got to keep swinging,” Virginia coach Pete Gillen said. “We get a little flustered, we get a little hesitant or stunned or whatever, and then they just turned it up and ran by us.”
The Cavaliers didn’t help themselves by committing 17 personal fouls in the second half. North Carolina took advantage, hitting 17 of 25 free throws.
North Carolina also took a 38-27 rebounding advantage for the game, including a 15-8 edge on the offensive glass.
“We’ve got to keep pushing,” Williams said. “If you want to really get a lead, maintain it and build on it, you’ve got to keep pushing.
“I thought after the first five or six minutes of the second half, we really got active.”