The Tar Heels (5-1) committed 23 turnovers and shot just 40 percent, but they also converted 75 percent of their free throws, which proved to be a crucial statistic down the stretch.
It was just UNC’s second win in six ACC/Big East Challenge contests.
Sean May’s homecoming was greeted by a jeering crowd that seemed to have an affect on his three-foul, one-point first half performance. But he settled down in a second half that included several redemptive baskets and defensive stops.
“The crowd wasn’t going to be nice to Sean,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “But, I know that he still loves the state of Indiana and Indiana University. I don’t think he played tight because of the crowd. He had some bad things happen to him early in the game. But, in the second half I was really happy with the way that we played.”
Meanwhile Rashad McCants did not let the locals upset his focus whatsoever, as he scored his game-high 19 points. And many of his long-range offerings came in the most opportune of situations for Carolina.
Every time Indiana (2-1) appeared poised to make a game of it, McCants would nail another one of his five 3’s on the night.
“It doesn’t get any tougher than Indiana,” McCants said. “We have played everywhere and Indiana is really tough and really loud.”
In Assembly Hall, it’s as if every seat is in the student section. To say the crowd that met these nomadic Tar Heels was a hostile one, would be like saying Bobby Knight could at times be considered slightly disagreeable. And while the program’s legendary silver-haired patriarch may now be long gone – some may say self-exiled to Texas Tech – 17,404 of his red-clad disciples remained to carry on his legacy.
The last time a Carolina team walked onto Branch McCracken Court was Dec. 22, 1979; when the Tar Heels, led that night by the likes of Jimmy Black, Mike O’Koren and Al Wood, escaped with a 61-57 victory.
They would need an equally inspired effort this time around in order to extend their current win streak to five games.
Although the Hoosiers trailed most of the game it wasn’t until late in the second half before most fans began fumbling for their car keys.
But this was to be an ugly game, exactly how IU coach Mike Davis designed it. He wasn’t about to try and slug it out with the Tar Heels, which had outscored their previous four opponents by a combined 95 points.
“Tonight you could feel the energy in the air,” Davis said. “For North Carolina, it speaks volumes about their team being able to play well in an environment like this.”
Although they trailed by six at halftime, the Hoosiers had effectively taken the Tar Heels out of their ‘Fun and Gun’ offensive attack from the start. And by the time IU’s Marshall Strickland hit a long-range 3-pointer to cut the UNC lead to 34-33 with 18:22 left to play, it was clear Carolina would have to find a new way to dispose of its current opponent.
But as May, who was constantly bombarded with chants of ‘Sean May sucks’ or ‘Traitor,’ struggled to find his comfort zone, McCants was busy agitating Indiana fans and players alike with clutch shooting.
And despite the fact that he was unable to turn up the game’s tempo to the fever pitch he had in his four previous outings, Raymond Felton delivered with 18 points, delivering a deft outside shooting touch of his own.
Yet even though the Tar Heels were never really able to stretch their legs and get into the rhythm they displayed in four straight lopsided wins over the previous week, they turned in some dazzling show-stopping plays down the stretch.
With 11:31 remaining, May took a pass from about 10-feet out, and then turned and crammed a two-handed slam in the face of Pat Ewing to push the Carolina lead back to 10.
After a frenzied scrum under the UNC basket ended in an emphatic dunk by May, Carolina had once again withstood Indiana’s best shot and led 53-46 with 4:29 showing on the clock.
“You never want to take a guy’s fire away from him, so we let him stay as hyped as he wanted to be,” McCants said of May. “He came through for us in the clutch and we honor him for that.”