CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said he was ready to see his team win at North Carolina this week, and many chuckled.
No one in the Dean Smith Center was laughing at the Vols on Sunday.
North Carolina beat Tennessee 73-71, but the Vols — a 20-point underdog — led throughout the game and took the Tar Heels to the final seconds.
Robert Hubbs lll led Tennessee with 21 points on 9-of-11 shooting, but the Vols could not overcome North Carolina’s staggering size advantage.
“We told our team at halftime, ‘If we’re gonna win this game, we’re going to do it rebounding the ball,’ and we didn’t do it,” said Barnes, whose Tennessee team is the shortest in the SEC and features only one player taller than 6-foot-7. “Carolina just played volleyball.
“Like I told the guys, being close is not good enough.”
North Carolina entered the game leading the nation with a plus 15.4 rebounding margin and outrebounded Tennessee, 41-32.
The Vols led by as many as 15 points in the first half before taking a 44-36 lead into the half, silencing the crowd of 18,745.
The North Carolina fans started becoming loud when the Tar Heels opened the second half on a 6-0 run.
Still, North Carolina didn’t draw even until there were 13 1/2 minutes left, and it didn’t reclaim the lead until 2:14 remained.
Tennessee had a chance to win, but with :02 left Lamonte Turner’s attempt created from penetration was blocked by Tar Heels’ 6-11 post Tony Bradley.
The Vols had gained possession with :09 remaining, trailing 73-71.
“I’m just disappointed that the last play of the game we didn’t execute,” Barnes said. “We had exactly what we wanted. We had the ball on a running start.”
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said it was the “luckiest” win in his 1,003-game head coaching career.
Barnes was proud of his young team — eight players were appearing in their first true collegiate road game — but he didn’t want them to misinterpret his message.
“I love my team, (and) I think there are a lot of things that we can do,” Barnes said. “But I told them, it’s easy to go into the locker room and say, ‘We did this, we did that,’ but the fact is we came in to win and we didn’t.
“I don’t want them to feel good about being close in games. We’ve got to figure out a way to get over the hump.”