KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — North Carolina led for less than two minutes Saturday afternoon at Tennessee, but the Tar Heels were on top when it mattered most in a 78-73 victory over the Vols.
A capacity crowd of 21,678 turned out at Thompson-Boling Arena, “checkerboarding” the crowd with color coordinated orange-and-white sections — save some loyal North Carolina fans who dotted the arena with light blue.
The No. 20-ranked Vols (7-2) led throughout much of the game, but the No. 7 Tar Heels (10-1) clamped down late, going on a 9-0 run in the final minute to reign supreme.
Grant Williams led Tennessee with 15 points, including a basket with 1:07 left that gave the Vols a 70-67 lead.
North Carolina’s Joel Berry II had a game-high 21 points for the Tar Heels, including a pair of free throws that closed the gap to 70-69 with a minute left.
The Vols turned over the ball on the ensuing possession when Lamonte Turner was trapped in the backcourt. North Carolina’s Kenny Williams hit a 3-pointer with 32.7 seconds left that gave the Tar Heels a lead at 72-70. They led the rest of the way.
Tennessee led the game for 37 minutes, 10 seconds, making for an electric atmosphere not seen since Bruce Pearl was coach and led the Vols to six straight NCAA Tournaments.
It was the first game between Top 25 men’s basketball teams in Knoxville since 2010, which was also the last time Tennessee was ranked, prior to this season.
Tennessee held a 38-32 lead at intermission and led by as many as nine points. The Vols were paced by James Daniel III’s 11 points in the first half.
The Vols played big and played hard against the favored Tar Heels early, holding a 4-0 advantage in blocked shots and a 6-1 edge in steals in the first half.
Tennessee entered the game leading the SEC with 19.1 assists per game, but North Carolina’s defense created problems for the Vols’ guards. Tennessee had 11 assists and 13 turnovers.
North Carolina outscored Tennessee 22-8 in the paint in the second half and outrebounded the Vols 26-20 over the final 20 minutes to rally for the win.
Tennessee outscored North Carolina by a team-best 6 points in the 19 minutes that 6-foot-11 Kyle Alexander was on the court. Alexander had 5 points, 4 rebounds and 3 blocked shots in the game.