UNC (11-2) exploited that weakness early, recording 18 points in the paint in the first half alone, compared to a paltry six for the visitors.
The lack of a steadfast big man allowed UNC to spread the ball around the halfcourt, disorienting the young Longhorns (9-3) and allowing seven Tar Heels to score in the game’s opening eight minutes. UNC would finish with 22 offensive rebounds compared to Texas’ 17 defensive rebounds.
Texas pulled the game to 24-16 early, but any momentum the Longhorns had gathered was stymied by P.J. Hairston — and the best dunk in the Smith Center this season.
On a fast break with six minutes left in the half, Kendall Marshall swung a pass to Hairston near midcourt, who exploded down the sideline toward the open paint. Texas guard Julien Lewis slid over and attempt to draw a charge under the circle as Hairston began liftoff from the low block that would end with a fully extended, one-handed jam.
Lewis didn’t get the charge. Hairston made the highlight reel.
“I think I enjoyed it more than the fans,” a grinning John Henson said after the game.
Texas went into the locker room having scored the fewest points in the first half all season long with just 23. But while the Tar Heels raced out to the 16-point halftime lead, they would cool in the second half.
With less than eight minutes left in the game, Texas had three players in double figures while UNC had only Harrison Barnes in that category — a testament to the depth of the team as UNC had eight players with at least four points.
Barnes snapped out of his slump to score 26 points, his season high. The sophomore forward had back-to-back nine point performances in the two previous UNC games, going 4-for-12 in both outings.
“The points are nice, but I was happy with the fact that I was able to get 10 rebounds,” said Barnes, who recorded his fourth career double-double and first of the season.
Perhaps more important than his double-double was the zero in the turnover column for Barnes. He entered the game with more than two times as many turnovers than assists, but mitigated that Wednesday by limiting his drives to the basket and using his body to create space for quality shots on the perimeter.
The two single-digit games were the eighth and ninth such performances of his UNC career. Barnes went to the Smith Center on Wednesday afternoon and waited for nearly two hours on Texas’ shoot-arounds before taking the floor at 1:45 p.m. to practice his shot.
“I’ve had some awfully good players that, when things didn’t go well one game or two, they were going to bounce back against a better team,” Roy Williams said.
“He’s going to pay the price and give you the effort.”