KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- It didn’t matter to Rick Barnes that his Tennessee basketball team was an afterthought nationally to start the season.
And, for that matter, the Volunteers were an afterthought in the SEC after being picked 13th among 14 teams in the preseason.
To their credit, they haven’t played that way, and for all but 1 minute, 31 seconds Sunday, they led No. 7 North Carolina and looked like a team capable of making some serious noise come March. But when it came time to win the game, the Tar Heels looked right at home, and the No. 20 Vols still looked a bit out of place in a 78-73 loss that was disappointing for Barnes’ club, but hardly deflating.
“This game won’t define us,” said Barnes, who made that proclamation -- win or lose -- before the game.
It’s worth noting that both of Tennessee’s losses this season have come to the past two teams to win the national championship. North Carolina won it a year ago and Villanova two years ago.
“We’re in it with those teams, and that’s a start,” Tennessee guard Jordan Bowden said. “Now, we’ve got to learn how to finish it with those teams, and we’re going to get there.”
The Tar Heels (10-1) looked like a team that was playing for the first time in 11 days in the first half. They turned the ball over 12 times and trailed by as many as nine points.
“I told our guys that if you’ll do what we tell you to do to the best of your ability, you’ll be there at the end,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams, relaying what he told his team at the half.
And at the end, the Tar Heels looked like they’d been there before, and the Vols (7-2) did not. Kenny Williams’ clutch 3-pointer with 35 seconds remaining put North Carolina ahead for good in what was the first time two nationally ranked men’s teams had collided in Thompson-Boling Arena since Feb. 27, 2010, when No. 19-ranked Tennessee upset No. 2 Kentucky, 74-65.
So it has been a while since the Vols were on this kind of stage at home, particularly with the first home sellout in nearly three years. But there’s also reason to believe that Barnes is building a program to last on Rocky Top.
“We’re still a team that’s overlooked and still a team that has a long ways to go and a team that needs to do it for the entire 40 minutes,” said Tennessee forward Grant Williams, who led the Vols with 15 points, but had several good looks in the paint in the second half that he couldn’t get to go down. “They only led for [1 minute, 31 seconds]. That’s [1 minute, 31 seconds] we can’t let happen.”
It was a similar story for Tennessee against Villanova earlier this season. The Vols led by 12 points at the half before falling 85-76 in the semifinals of the Battle 4 Atlantis.
“I like Rick’s team. They’re one of the youngest teams in the country and made some mistakes down the stretch that really hurt them,” Roy Williams said.
Tennessee started three sophomores and two juniors, but Barnes said the Vols’ undoing in the final minutes of the game had more to do with not communicating well enough and rushing things.
And even more damaging, when Tennessee had chances to push its lead to double digits early in the second half, the Vols couldn’t take advantage of what was a raucous home-court advantage and extend their lead.
“We didn’t finish it, and that will be a great learning lesson,” Barnes said. “If we’re the team we want to be, we will bounce back regardless of who it is.”
Bowden said there’s a lot more to build on from Sunday’s loss than there was to be concerned about.
“We’ve played some tough teams and know what we’ve got to work on,” he said. “Nobody’s satisfied with just being in these games or having chances to win. But we’re a lot further along than we were last year and are going to keep growing together.”