The 21st-ranked Tar Heels spent the second half just holding on.
James Michael McAdoo scored 19 points Saturday to help North Carolina beat East Carolina 93-87, turning in the kind of performance that has too often left coach Roy Williams frustrated or furious this season.
P.J. Hairston added 18 for the Tar Heels (8-2), who emerged from a weeklong break due to fall exams with their third straight victory. North Carolina shot 55 percent in the first half to build a 16-point lead at the break, but the Pirates -- coached by former UNC guard Jeff Lebo -- outplayed the Tar Heels throughout the second half and made it a tough run to the finish.
|More on college basketball|
|More college hoops coverage|
East Carolina scored 61 second-half points and twice got as close as four in the final 30 seconds.
"Right now, there's not anything ol' Roy's ecstatic about, let's put it that way," the Hall of Fame coach said.
There were plenty of reasons why.
None of his big men managed a single offensive rebound, prompting to Williams at one point to play five guards. His team didn't switch on screens after being told to do exactly that during a timeout and promptly gave up a layup. The Tar Heels left ECU's Akeem Richmond open repeatedly in the second half along the perimeter.
Williams -- who typically hoards his timeouts -- unleashed some of his frustration when he burned one midway through the second half and spent the entire stoppage screaming at his flat team from one knee.
His team responded with a surge that pushed the lead to 18 with 7:19 left, but didn't sustain that momentum and let the Pirates right back in it.
"It just seemed like they had more energy than we did," senior guard Dexter Strickland said. "We're not going to win too many games if we continue to play like that."
Richmond scored all of his 17 points with five 3-pointers in the second half, but the Pirates (6-2) just couldn't quite overtake the Tar Heels in the instate program's first trip to Chapel Hill.
"Hopefully we get some confidence from it," Lebo said. "They're disappointed. They felt they had a chance, and that's what you want when you play on the road -- no matter where you play."
Lebo played for Dean Smith and then-assistant Williams at UNC from 1985-89. He even played in the first game in the Smith Center as a freshman in January 1986.
UNC fans greeted Lebo with a standing ovation before this one, then his Pirates overcame a slow start with a tenacious performance.
"I tried to never look at Jeff because that's somebody on the other end that I really care for," Williams said. "When the game's over, I'm happy that we won and ticked off by the way we played, but then you look at that guy and he's got an L. His team may have played better, closer to their potential, than our team did."
After trailing 42-26 at the break, East Carolina played more aggressively and got into the double-bonus at the foul line by midway through the second half. The Pirates kept trading baskets with the Tar Heels down the stretch and inching closer before Richmond knocked down a pair of 3-pointers in the final minute, the second bringing East Carolina within 89-85 with 26.6 seconds left.
Strickland answered with a pair of free throws to push the lead back to six. Then, after East Carolina's Marshall Guilmette's layup, Leslie McDonald had a slam with 10.5 seconds left that ultimately sealed the victory.
"I mean, I knew we were going to win the game, but we just should've never let it get that close from the beginning," Hairston said.
East Carolina shot 53 percent after halftime, including 6 for 13 from 3-point range.
"We were nervous when we first got out there, but Coach Lebo just told us to settle down at halftime and everything would be fine," Richmond said. "We've got to be more aggressive -- that's also what he told us. And that's what we tried to come out and do in the second half."
There was a moment of silence before the game due to Friday's school shooting in Newtown, Conn.