KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Kenny Williams sank a 3-pointer to put North Carolina ahead for good with 35 seconds left as the seventh-ranked Tar Heels rallied past No. 20 Tennessee 78-73 Sunday.
North Carolina (10-1) capitalized on a 9-0 run in the final minute to win for the fifth straight time and ended Thompson-Boling Arena’s hex on defending national champions.
Tennessee (7-2) had won each of the last five times it had hosted a defending national champion, a string that included victories over Connecticut (in January 2012), Florida (February 2007 and February 2008) and Kentucky (February 1999 and February 2013).
Joel Berry II scored a game-high 21 points for North Carolina. Williams and Luke Maye added 15 points each.
Tennessee led by as many as nine points in the second half and was ahead 70-67 before North Carolina took control down the stretch.
North Carolina began its rally when Berry hit two free throws with a minute left to make it 70-69. Maye then stole a pass from Lamonte Turner to set up the go-ahead basket from Williams, whose 3-pointer off Theo Pinson’s assist put North Carolina ahead 72-70.
After Tennessee’s Admiral Schofield missed with 18 seconds left, Pinson hit two free throws, made a steal and added two more foul shots to make it 76-70.
Tennessee cut the margin to 76-72 on Jordan Bowden’s 3-pointer with seven seconds left, but Berry sank two free throws to seal the victory.
Grant Williams scored 15 points to lead five Tennessee players in double figures. James Daniel III had 14 points, Bowden 12 and Jordan Bone and Schofield each added 10.
This marked the second straight year North Carolina rallied to beat Tennessee. The Vols squandered a 15-point lead in a 73-71 loss at North Carolina last season, the largest deficit the eventual national champions overcame in a game all year. Berry didn’t play in that game due to a sprained left ankle.
This game represented the first time two ranked teams met at Thompson-Boling Arena since Feb. 27, 2010, when No. 19 Tennessee won 74-65 over a second-ranked Kentucky team that featured John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe.
Sunday’s game attracted the first sellout crowd at the 21,678-seat arena since a Tennessee 66-48 loss to a top-ranked Kentucky team on Feb 17, 2015. Tennessee returned to the Top 25 this month for the first time since December 2010.
North Carolina: The Tar Heels rallied because they turned up their defensive intensity and took better care of the ball in the second half. After committing 12 turnovers in the first half, North Carolina had just four more the rest of the way.
Tennessee: The Vols showed they can compete with anyone, but their offense wouldn’t allow them to win this game. After making four of its first five shots in the second half, Tennessee went 7 of 31 the rest of the way. Tennessee made three baskets in the final 10 minutes, 25 seconds.
North Carolina hosts Wofford on Wednesday.
Tennessee hosts Furman on Wednesday.