UNC's Harrison Barnes shoots over Texas' J'Covan Brown (14) in the second half. ROBERT WILLETT - firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated 11 p.m.
CHAPEL HILL — Seven hours before the start of his team’s game here against Texas on Wednesday night, North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes was already in the Smith Center, waiting for the Longhorns shoot-around to end. Roy Williams, the Tar Heels coach, had told his players to arrive at 1:45 for a shoot-around of their own.
But Barnes was there by noon, waiting to go onto the court. Williams recounted the story after North Carolina’s 82-63 victory against the Longhorns – after Barnes scored a season-high 26 points and broke out of a slump, by his standards, in which he’d scored just nine points in each of UNC’s past two games.
“He’s going to pay the price and give you the effort,” Williams said of Barnes, who also had a season-high 10 rebounds.
Williams had told Barnes that he’d play well. Williams had a feeling. It was the way Barnes had arrived so early on Wednesday to take extra shots. It was the fact that a bigger-name opponent was coming into the Smith Center – that the crowd would be louder, the stage brighter.
“I think he’s a competitive kid and things hadn’t gone as well recently,” Williams said. “And a better opponent, I think that sometimes fires him up even more.”
Williams was right about that, and about something else, too: After admonishing his team’s lack of intensity during a lopsided but uninspired 50-point victory against Nicholls on Monday night, Williams figured the Tar Heels (11-2) might play with more energy, more effort, on Wednesday night.
Had they? Williams answered the question with a question: “What do you think?”
“We didn’t do anything like the other night like we wanted to,” said Williams, who had been 0-3 against Texas during his years at UNC. “And we did tonight. We were more aggressive, we were alert. We didn’t miss 27 free throws or whatever it was the other night. I think we were better in every phase of the game and I expected that.”
The Tar Heels have scored more points than they did on Wednesday. They have shot a better percentage than the 44.4 percent they shot against Texas (9-3).
But rarely had they played with more energy and focus.
“It is easier to get up for these big games,” UNC senior forward Tyler Zeller said, admitting that it’s more difficult to find the passion for games against more overmatched opponents. “I think that was kind of what we’re capable of.”
Zeller, who finished with 8 points and 11 rebounds, said the performance against Texas “was probably the most fun we’ve had this year.”
It wasn’t difficult to understand why. The Tar Heels brought the Smith Center crowd out of its seats numerous times, especially during one stretch in the first half when they scored on back-to-back dunks from freshman P.J. Hairston and John Henson, the junior forward.
“We lost ourselves in the game,” Henson said afterward.
It showed, too, with the Heels making their dominance seem effortless at times. Henson finished with 14 points, and Reggie Bullock, the sophomore guard, with 12. Barnes, meanwhile, scored 19 of his 26 during the second half.
UNC led 39-23 at halftime and never led by less than 14 during the second half.
Williams earlier this week was so perturbed by his team’s lack of intensity against Nicholls that he considered gathering his players at 7 a.m. the next day for what he described as a “track practice.” Instead, though, a second-half surge saved the Tar Heels from running sprints, and the effort carried over into Wednesday night.
“We were so much more gifted that we relied on that instead of playing hard,” Williams said of the Nicholls game.
On Wednesday, his team was more gifted again - but also more intense and energetic, too.