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Kenny Williams’ breakout season hit another height on Sunday as the junior wing silenced the hostile Tennessee crowd by drilling a 3-point shot to give No. 5 North Carolina a 72–70 lead over the No. 25 Volunteers with 39 seconds left, propelling the Tar Heels to an unexpected 10–1 start.
Sunday marked an important breakthrough for more than just Williams. Going into Sunday’s game, Carolina had yet to play in a game decided by single digits, as the Heels have either outclassed opponents or been blown out themselves (the latter in a stinker against No. 2 Michigan State).
But on Sunday, the Tar Heels were pushed to their limit by a quality team in a hostile atmosphere — trailing for all but 89 seconds of the contest — and came through in the clutch with a 9–0 run in the final minute. Perhaps the biggest turning point in the game was that Carolina took much better control of the ball in the second half, with only four turnovers in the second frame after turning it over 12 times in a sloppy first half.
Being able to refocus and pull out a close game in which they were on the ropes provides especially important experience with Atlantic Coast Conference play on the horizon — particularly for the less-experienced youngsters — a fact that both head coach Roy Williams and players emphasized afterwards.
Carolina now hosts Wofford on Wednesday, Dec. 20, and Ohio State on Saturday, Dec. 23, before taking another week-long break for Christmas in advance of conference play.
JOHNSON NEARING RETURN
Carolina’s hot start to the season is even more unexpected given that projected starter Cameron Johnson has missed all 11 games so far. But Johnson participated in pregame warmups on Sunday for the first time since undergoing surgery for a torn meniscus in his left knee, an indication that his return to action is right around the corner.
Johnson expressed hope after Sunday’s game that he may see the court at some point in the next two games, noting that the next step is to get his legs accustomed to the intensity and explosiveness required on defense, at which point he can start working into the rotation in games.
The sweet-shooting graduate transfer from Pittsburgh has two years of eligibility remaining and will provide significant scoring punch as well as additional experienced depth for the Tar Heels in conference play, though the hot start from his teammates should take pressure off his reintegration into the lineup.
EARLY SIGNING DAY
Wednesday marks the beginning of college football’s first early signing period for recruits, and the Carolina coaching staff expects nearly all the players currently committed to the Tar Heels to sign early.
The headliners among those expected to sign early are receivers Jordyn Adams (Cary Green Hope) and Dyami Brown (Charlotte West Mecklenburg), quarterback Jace Ruder (Norton, Kansas), and offensive guard Avery Jones (Havelock), all of whom are ranked in the top 20 at their positions nationally.
After the early signing period closes on Friday, the Carolina coaches can be choosy as they turn their attention to top unsigned players to fill out a class presently ranked in the top 30 nationally (sixth in the ACC) in the 247Composite despite only having 16 commitments.
Adding two more talented offensive line prospects will be a priority after the early signing period, as Carolina remains in the hunt for several top-shelf linemen, including top-100 tackle William Barnes (Apopka, Florida). The Heels also remain in the hunt for additional blue-chip players at linebacker, defensive line, running back, and wide receiver.
Prior to UNC’s win on Sunday, Tennessee had won its last five games when hosting the defending national champion, having defeated Kentucky (2013, 1999), UConn (2012), and Florida (2007, 2008) during that streak.