North Carolina was down in the second half in a hostile environment on the road, but Tar Heels coach Roy Williams liked what he saw on his players’ faces.
He liked the end result, too.
Kenny Williams hit a go-ahead 3-pointer with less than a minute to play, and No. 7 North Carolina came from behind to nip No. 20 Tennessee 78-73 on Sunday at Thompson-Boling Arena in Knoxville, Tenn.
Joel Berry II scored 21 points, and Kenny Williams and Luke Maye both finished with 15 for the Tar Heels (10-1), who have won five straight games since losing to then-No. 4 Michigan State on Nov. 27.
Tennessee (7-2) got 15 points from Grant Williams and led for the majority of the game, but the Volunteers went cold down the stretch and had their four-game winning streak snapped.
“At the three-minute timeout, I just told them, ‘Do what I tell you to do to the best of your ability, and we’ll be there at the end,” Roy Williams said. “I told them that I liked the look on their faces at that point.”
With the Volunteers leading 68-67 with 1:24 to play, Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield created a turnover off an inbounds play. The Vols capitalized with a tough driving layup by Grant Williams to extend their lead back to three.
Berry hit two free throws on North Carolina’s ensuing possession to draw the Tar Heels back within one.
After a Tennessee turnover caused by North Carolina’s press, Kenny Williams hit his go-ahead 3-pointer from the left wing to put North Carolina up 72-70 with 32.7 seconds to play.
“I got myself ready to shoot and just stepped into it and knocked it down,” Kenny Williams said of his clutch 30-pointer.
“This was a tough environment,” he added. “The crowd was really into it. They played really well, and I think the fact that we pulled out, it tells us a lot about this team.”
Schofield missed a pull-up jumper on Tennessee’s next possession, and North Carolina’s Theo Pinson hit four clinching free throws in the final seconds to seal the win.
North Carolina chipped away at the Tennessee lead early in the second half and was down 61-60 after a Kenny Williams free throw with eight minutes to play.
Jordan Bowden got free on the left wing off an offensive rebound on the Volunteers’ next possession and knocked down a 3-pointer, but Tennessee could not distance itself from North Carolina. The Volunteers went the next six-plus minutes without a field goal.
Tennessee also failed to hold a lead in its other loss to No. 1 Villanova.
“We show our emotion too much,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “I don’t like the way we carry ourselves sometimes when we have a lead and people start to cut into it. We’re still working on that. We’re not where we need to be.
“We’re a lot further than we were last year, but we’re still not there.”
Senior guard James Daniel III came off the bench to spark the Volunteers in the first half. Daniel’s third 3-pointer of the first half put Tennessee up 29-23 with 8:27 to play.
Tennessee led 38-32 at halftime behind 11 points from Daniel.
NOTES: North Carolina won the rebounding battle 44-39. The Tar Heels grabbed 19 offensive rebounds, and the Volunteers had 18. … Saturday’s game was the 11th meeting between North Carolina and Tennessee. … North Carolina returns home to host Wofford and Ohio State before opening Atlantic Coast Conference play against Wake Forest on Dec. 30. … Tennessee hosts Furman on Wednesday, then plays at Wake Forest on Saturday prior to the start of Southeastern Conference action at Arkansas on Dec. 30.