CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Tennessee’s near-upset at North Carolina made a statement, but not the sort the Vols’ players were looking for Sunday afternoon.
“We didn’t come here to lose close,” Tennessee freshman Grant Williams said. “We came here to win.”
Tennessee nearly did, falling 73-71 at the Dean Smith Center over the No. 5-ranked Tar Heels after leading by as many as 15 points.
The Vols (4-4) entered the game as a 20-point underdog in search of their first road win against a top 10 team since 2013 when they beat then-No. 8 Florida, 75-70.
Tennessee’s last non-conference road win against a top 10 team was in 2010, when the Vols beat then-No. 3 Pittsburgh in the Steel City.
Coach Rick Barnes said playing North Carolina (10-1) close wasn’t good enough, and his players agreed.
“We just have to find a way to win,” said UT senior Robert Hubbs, who poured in 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting and pulled down six rebounds. “We came out and attacked, ran our stuff and were aggressive.”
Tennessee shot 65.4 percent through the first 20 minutes, taking a 44-36 into halftime. The Vols shooting percentage represented the fourth-best by an opponent recorded at the Dean Smith Center in the building’s 31-year history.
For Hubbs, it was an opportunity to prove his 5-star skills against elite competition after a mostly disappointing career at Tennessee.
“I just go out and do my job, and play like the best player on the floor, and I was today,” Hubbs said. “I’m doing what I do. Every time I step on the floor, whoever it is, I have to play like I know how to play and go out and just dominate.
“I gave my all, but it wasn’t enough to win.”
Williams, a 6-foot-5, 235-pound true freshman from Charlotte, N.C., had seven points and six rebounds despite being out-sized by the Tar Heels 6-10 and above posts.
“I grew up loving Carolina, and to play in this building was incredible and I enjoyed it,” Williams said, “but the outcome was not something I enjoyed .
“We just have to do a better job as a team being tougher.”
North Carolina entered the game leading the nation with a plus-15.4 rebounding edge, and it won the battle of the boards on Sunday, 41-32.
Tennessee returns to action at 7 p.m. on Tuesday night against Tennessee Tech at Thompson-Boling Arena.