After struggling to find rhythm on offense for much of the game, Carolina (2-0) overcame an 11-point deficit late in the second half to defeat Rutgers, 71-67, before a raucous Smith Center crowd of 14,656.
Sean May led the Heels in scoring, with 19 points, while Rashad McCants scored several big baskets down the stretch, totaling 18 points.
"I'm really so proud of my young team -- they were fighters," head coach Matt Doherty said postgame. "I think that shows the character of this team."
The two teams combined for an ugly offensive showing in the first half, with the Heels committing 12 turnovers and no one other than May able to display consistency on offense. Rutgers closed the half with a 9-2 run to take a 36-33 lead into the locker room.
"Teams are going to throw different things at you, and they were aggressive and made us work for every shot," McCants said.
With the game tied at 46 at the 13:43 mark of the second half, Carolina hit a major lull. Turnovers and poor defense led to an 11-0 Rutgers run, with UNC's offensive drought lasting 5:36. The lead would hit 11 again with 7:25 left in the game.
In order to forge a comeback, the Heels knew it would start on the defensive end.
"We can't make our offense flow every night, but you can always bring your defense," May said. "In the huddle we knew that if we were going to get back into this game it was going to have to be defensively."
Doherty put the team in a full court defense out of the break, and they quickly put together a 7-0 run to help close the gap.
The Heels hung close until a McCants dunk followed by a Manuel basket on a goaltending call tied the game up at 67 all with 2:11 to play.
The Carolina defense would not allow another point, first forcing a double-dribble and then a traveling call on the following possession. Manuel then hit Williams for the go-ahead layup to give UNC the lead with 31 seconds left.
When Rutgers' game-tying attempt failed, in swooped McCants for the rebound, eagerly awaiting the opportunity to seal the win at the free throw line – which he did, hitting both.
"I wouldn't want to have anyone else on this team – besides Will Johnson – at the free throw line [with the game on the line]," May said.
McCants had been frustrated by the Rutgers defense for much of the night, but he led the Tar Heel comeback, scoring eight of the 18 points in the final 6:25.
"I got on him and took him out [in the first half]," Doherty said. "He didn't sulk, kept his head in the game – and I knew we needed him to have a chance to win this game. He went in there and made some big plays."
McCants also contributed six rebounds, three steals, two assists and two blocks.
And then there was Sean May.
The freshman widebody logged 35 minutes, playing through fatigue and leg cramps late, not to mention the two troublesome knees and a hip flexor that have plagued him in the season's early weeks.
"I'm banged up, but who cares?" May said. "I was going to do whatever it takes – I was not coming off the floor."
May had 10 rebounds to go with his 19 points, for his second double-double in as many games.
Williams also posted a double-double of 13 points and 11 boards.
The other two members of the underclassmen-filled starting lineup, Raymond Felton and Jackie Manuel, were big contributors in their own right.
Felton didn't score many points (5, 1-7 FG), but dished out nine assists, grabbed seven rebounds, and even though he amassed seven turnovers, only two of them came in the second half. Manuel, meanwhile, once again displayed impressive confidence, unfazed by six turnovers to produce 11 points and five boards.
"We matured tonight," Williams said. "I think it showed, because we did a lot of things I think a lot of young teams couldn't do – stayed together, stayed poised and pulled out a victory."
Herve Lamizana and Ricky Shields both netted 20 points for Rutgers. UNC held the Scarlet Knights' top scorer, Jerome Coleman, to a mere five points on 2-of-18 shooting.
A trip to New York City and Madison Square Garden awaits the Tar Heels in the Preseason NIT semifinals next week, with a likely matchup with Kansas – but first Carolina must travel to Norfolk for a 1 p.m. Sunday game against Old Dominion.
"We're not really worried about Madison Square Garden right now," McCants said. "We're focused on Old Dominion. That's the only thing that's going through my mind."
Doherty said, "The biggest focus for us right now is Old Dominion – not to look past Old Dominion – and I don't think we will. We're opening up their new building, they have a great coach, and two of their players are from North Carolina – so I know they are going to be fired up to play us.