CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina's 17-point second-half lead was down to four with about 2 minutes left when Dexter Strickland got the ball in the corner. The freshman hesitated, then launched a 3-pointer that dropped through the net and sent everyone in the Smith Center into celebration.
Everyone except Roy Williams.
"I hated the shot," the Hall of Fame coach said, "but it went in and talent took over above coaching and intelligence."
Strickland's 3 was key in helping the ninth-ranked Tar Heels hold off Rutgers 81-67 on Monday night. But perhaps more than anything, it illustrated the apparent disconnect between what Williams wants and what his young squad is giving him -- a surprising problem for a team that is 13 games into the season and two weeks from Atlantic Coast Conference play.
Yes, Strickland scored a season-high 18 points to lead six players in double figures and the Tar Heels pulled away late for a double-digit victory. But the final score doesn't tell what Williams sees: a team that looked confused defensively and struggled to make the right decisions with the ball.
At one point, Williams was so irked that he slammed his right hand down on his chair and slouched in his seat on the bench after the Tar Heels had to burn a timeout with about 3 minutes left.
"I'm really not in a good mood about any dumb things that they did right now," a seething Williams said.
The absence of fifth-year senior Marcus Ginyard didn't help matters. The versatile swingman, who is averaging 11 points per game, sprained his right ankle on a drive to the basket during Saturday's practice, with the school announcing Monday afternoon he would sit out against Rutgers. He was on the bench, but walked at times with the aid of a crutch and is considered doubtful for Wednesday night's home game against Albany.
But still, with guys like senior Deon Thompson (14 points) and sophomore big man Ed Davis (11 points, 15 rebounds) coming off significant roles in last year's national championship run, it's not like North Carolina should look so befuddled, either.
"We have the talent to be a very, very good team and have all the pieces to be a very, very good team," Thompson said. "What we do in practice, we just have to do in games. We do everything perfect in practice and then we get in the games and then it seems like we just forget everything."
Mike Rosario scored 22 points to lead the Scarlet Knights (9-3), who came in with a six-game winning streak -- the program's longest in eight years -- though it came largely against a soft schedule. That didn't stop Rutgers from giving the Tar Heels plenty of reason to feel frustrated.
"I really like what this team is doing," Rutgers coach Fred Hill said. "But I'm an old-school guy. I never like when we lose a game, ever."
The Tar Heels pushed a 39-33 halftime lead into a 61-44 margin with about 12 minutes left only to see the Scarlet Knights inch their way back into the game. Rosario's driving score made it 71-67 with 2:08 left and awoke what had been a slumbering home crowd.
Ten seconds later, Strickland launched the 3 that was tolerable to Williams only because it went in.
"I absolutely understand why he's mad," Strickland said. "Like the 3, I think it would have been a better decision if I had given it to Deon [inside]. It's little stuff like that, where you can make the play better, that he's mad at."
North Carolina helped itself with a 45-34 rebound advantage, including 17 on the offensive end that led to 17 second-chance points. The Tar Heels went 24 of 35 at the free throw line, including 25 attempts in the second half after getting 7-footers Hamady Ndiaye and Brian Okam into foul trouble and reaching the bonus just 4 minutes after the break.
Rutgers missed 20 of 23 3-point attempts, including several that could have put more pressure on the defending national champions in those final unsteady minutes.
"We're going to see what happens [(at practice Tuesday]," Tar Heels point guard Larry Drew II said. "I don't think it's going to look too good. But we deserve whatever [Williams] throws at us."
The Tar Heels wore their throwback uniforms -- which include a touch of red -- from the 1957 national championship season for the second time as part of a season-long celebration of the program's centennial season.