DENVER, March 22 — In the end, perhaps it was fitting that a North Carolina team whose flaws were depth, size and the ability to finish games was finished off by a squad whose fortes were all of the above.
Texas threw ice water on UNC’s smoldering title aspirations Saturday, handing the Tar Heels a 78-75 defeat in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and creating an emotional conclusion to Roy Williams’ first year in charge.
“I am proud to be the North Carolina coach,” said Williams, teary-eyed.
“I couldn’t be any more proud. I could be happier, but I could not be more proud.”
During Saturday’s first half, though, the defensive struggles of the sixth-seeded Tar Heels were as plain for the sellout crowd of 19,405 to see as they have been all season.
Ten different Longhorns combined to shoot 60 percent in the first 20 minutes, and despite 15 first-half points from UNC’s Rashad McCants, third-seeded Texas led 44-39 at the break.
By halftime, the Longhorns, who have four regulars 6-foot-8 or taller and 235 pounds or heavier, managed 22 points in the paint.
Still, Texas had to contend with UNC center Sean May, who escaped the half without picking up any fouls. That would change right after the break.
May was whistled three times in the opening 3:59, the third on a questionable offensive foul call during which Longhorn forward James Thomas appeared to flop.
With May out, Texas went on a 7-0 run and staked a 57-44 lead.
“The game changed a lot,” said UNC forward Jawad Williams. “It was tough to battle with some of their bigger players when Sean wasn’t in there.”
Still, the Tar Heels (19-11), who in the last week rallied from deficits in their ACC loss against Georgia Tech and NCAA win against Air Force, fought back.
Highlighted by seven points from McCants, including a steal from Jason Klotz leading to a fast-break layup, UNC went on an 11-0 run and cut the lead to two.
But it was then that the Tar Heels’ spotty defense allowed the ‘Horns (25-7) to hook ’em once again.
With Texas up three, Jawad Williams failed to box out on a Brandon Mouton miss, allowing Thomas to rebound and kick it out to Brian Boddicker for a trey.
“It’s been a frustrating year at times,” Roy Williams said. “It’s been a hard team. But for (Jawad Williams) to immediately come over and say, ‘Coach, that was my fault,’ it doesn’t erase the event that happened.
“But it is the start of what we need to have.”
Texas’ lead ballooned back to 11 with 5:34 to play, but UNC, which had three starters with four fouls, made one final improbable push.
Paced by three 3-pointers — two from Raymond Felton and one from Melvin Scott — the Tar Heels outscored the Longhorns 17-8 down the stretch and pulled within two with 12 seconds left.
After UNC failed to steal the inbounds pass after a Felton 3, May picked up his fifth foul, sending freshman P.J. Tucker to the line for two free throws.
Tucker, a 64.3-percent free throw shooter, made the first but missed the second.
Jawad Williams grabbed the rebound, and with UNC out of timeouts — a rare occurrence for a Roy Williams team — it was off to the races with 8.9 seconds to play.
Jawad Williams pushed the ball ahead to Felton, who found McCants on the right wing.
McCants was supposed to come off a screen from David Noel, but Noel couldn’t get there in time. Boddicker did, though, forcing McCants to up-fake, then step inside the three-point line and let it fly as the buzzer sounded.
“When (McCants) came across half court we should have probably fouled him, but we didn’t,” said Texas coach Rick Barnes, aware of the sophomore’s past heroics.
As it turns out, it didn’t matter.
McCants’ right foot wasn’t behind the arc. His off-balance shot wasn’t on track.
And his team wasn’t ready to move on quite yet.
As the dejected North Carolina players streamed out of the Pepsi Center almost an hour later, longtime radio play-by-play man Woody Durham strolled down the tunnel.
When Durham passed by May, he gave the red-eyed sophomore a sympathetic slap on the back and a grandfatherly bit of wisdom that, while unsolicited, couldn’t have been a more apropos way to end a season of high and largely unmet — even if unrealistic — expectations:
“Reality’s tough … isn’t it, pal?”
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