And if the Illini is a ranked team, then Carolina can’t be that far behind.
“I’m really proud of my team,” Roy Williams said. “I told them that they played harder and better than I coached.
“I just love how hard our kids played. It was a joy for me to watch that and the way they competed."
Still, Williams went on to emphasize that a Carolina loss never sits well with him.
“There’s no question about that, and we're not going to make excuses,” Williams said. “I screwed it up, and we'd like to have made a few more shots.”
Tyler Hansbrough more than held his own in the post with the likes of James Augustine and Shaun Pruitt, scoring a game-high 17 points, including a 9-for-11 night at the free throw line.
David Noel had 12 points -- all in the first half -- while Dee Brown led Illinois with 14 points, but went 0-for-6 from three-point range.
But it was the first time this year the Tar Heels were out-shot – and just barely. UNC (3-1) entered the game connecting at a 53.5 percent clip, while holding opponents to just 40.6. However, the Illini (6-0) edged Carolina 46.3 to 45.1.
Yet in defeat, there was a refreshing air amongst some of the 21,273 Smith Center patrons leaving the game.
Brown was by no means shut down by UNC defensively. But while hounded by Bobby Frasor, as well as Wes Miller and Marcus Ginyard (Quentin Thomas did not play due to a stress fracture in his left foot), he was guilty of five turnovers. Meanwhile, the Tar Heels’ perimeter players accounted for seven assists and eight steals.
“I think we did a great job today,” Frasor said of his match-up with Brown. “I know it’s a great challenge to play against any All-American.”
Ginyard, who scored 14 points, hit a fadeaway jumper down the stretch that nearly brought down the house.
“It was crazy,” Ginyard said. “I had never experienced anything before like that…hitting that three and just hearing the crowd go crazy.”
Frankly, if there is such thing as a “feel good loss,” this would constitute.
Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, it seemed apparent from the start that the game would wind up a thriller to be decided in the final seconds.
After a back-and-forth first half, Illinois took control after the break and led 64-50 at the 6:41 mark.
Then came a 12-0 run by the Tar Heels to make it 64-62.
But Carolina would turn it over twice with chances to tie, as well as allow an offensive rebound on a missed free throw that enabled the Illini to seal the game at the free throw line.
So UNC’s nine-game win streak comes to an end. So does its 21-game home winning streak. In fact, this was the Tar Heels’ first regular season non-conference loss in the Smith Center since a 98-81 setback to Kentucky on Dec. 7, 2002.
Yet rather than wallow in self-pity, Carolina comes away from this defeat almost rejuvenated, knowing it can play with anyone.
“It’s how tough we are,” Noel said. “We can go out every night and play the type of game we played tonight, it's going to be tough for a lot of teams to beat us.”
Next up for the Tar Heels is a trip to Lexington, Ky., where No. 10 Kentucky awaits.