In what was easily their best performance of the year, the Longhorns dominated No. 23 North Carolina in a 85-67 victory Wednesday night at the Frank Erwin Center.
Texas led the entire way, taking a 6-0 lead in the first minute of the game and never looking back. The Tar Heels, who have now lost five of their last six games against the Longhorns, cut the deficit to as few as four points in the second half. But Texas pulled away down the stretch to pick up what could prove to be a crucial non-conference win.
"It was a great win and it was one that was much-needed," head coach Rick Barnes said. "I think they looked more decisive than we've been. The last game I started seeing some of that. I've told them all year that we can average a bunch of points if we quit turning the ball over."
Despite shooting just 4-for-17 from the floor, Sheldon McClellan led the Longhorns with 18 points. He also grabbed six rebounds and hit 10 of 13 free throw attempts.
"There was a lot of hype coming into the game just because of the rivalry of us playing North Carolina," McClellan said. "I was being aggressive. I knew they were going to pressure me a lot coming off screens, so I was just ready to come off the screen shooting."
Julien Lewis chipped in 16 points, scoring five points during an 8-2 run in the second half that turned a four-point lead into a 68-58 advantage. North Carolina was never within striking distance down the stretch. Jonathan Holmes chipped in 15 points and eight rebounds and Ioannis Papapetrou scored 10 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, recording his first career double-double.
"It's pretty big for us," Holmes said. "We had a couple tough losses, mainly because we weren't playing as hard as we should. Tonight we came out and played harder than them and did what Coach has expected us to do all year long. We definitely set the bar high."
The same Texas team that fell to NAIA Chaminade in the Maui Invitational and scored just 41 points in a loss to Georgetown earlier this month took a 46-33 lead over North Carolina into halftime. The Longhorns, who led by as many as 19 points, will face No. 20 Michigan State in East Lansing oon Saturday.
"We haven't faced that pressure all year," Barnes said. "You knew they were going to make a run. The only thing that we didn't do was respond the way we needed to coming out of halftime. You've got to give them credit. They did a great job of getting to the foul line and a lot of that was offensive rebounds."
Texas improved to 7-4 with the win, earning a victory that should impress the Selection Committee when it decides who will be in the 68-team NCAA Tournament in March. Despite taking 12 fewer free throws and getting out-rebounded, the Longhorns were able to use a stifling defense to top the Tar Heels.
Texas held North Carolina to 31.3 percent shooting from the floor and recorded 12 steals. Turnovers have plagued the Longhorns all season long, but they committed only 13 while North Carolina committed 18.