In the end, North Carolina proved too much to overcome, ousting the Wildcats 78-71 in the second round of the NCAA tournament Friday night.
But the Tar Heels knew they'd been in a fight. Villanova erased a 20-point first-half deficit and then almost dug themselves out of a nine-point hole in the final minutes.
It wasn't until North Carolina seized a 32-12 lead that the Wildcats found their rhythm.
"It was a grind," Villanova swingman James Bell said. "We knew as we got into the second half we would have to continue to get stops. We hit some big shots and kept pushing."
The Wildcats ended their season 20-14.
"We got down 20. They never quit," coach Jay Wright said. "They've done that all year."
It was milestone victory No. 700 for UNC coach Roy Williams, whose players presented him with a jersey emblazoned with "700" on the front.
"I love the mental toughness of our team the last eight or nine minutes," Williams said.
Picking on a season-long weakness for the ninth-seeded Wildcats, North Carolina shot 11 of 21 from 3-point range while getting outrebounded 37-28.
JayVaughn Pinkston had 20 points and Darrun Hilliard scored 18 for Villanova.
After UNC (25-10) took a seemingly comfortable 65-56 lead on P.J. Hairston's 3-pointer and James Michael McAdoo's jumper, Ryan Arcidiacono answered with Villanova's second 3-pointer, cutting the lead to 65-59. But Marcus Paige dropped in a short jumper and put the Tar Heels on top 67-59 before a media timeout with 3:03 to go.
A pair of foul shots by Arcidiacono, Bell's 3-pointer and Pinkston's two free throws sliced the lead to 67-66. Paige then drilled a 3 and Hairston completed a three-point play a little while later for a 76-68 lead with 42 seconds left.
"I thought earlier in the game it was all happy and smooth and the ball was going in the basket," Williams said. "Then all of a sudden they started competing a little harder than we did."
Earlier, trying to protect a precarious 54-50 lead over the plucky Wildcats, North Carolina went to its strongest weapon and unleashed 3-pointers on three straight possessions by Hairston, Reggie Bullock and Hairston again.
Shooting from long range, the Tar Heels were openly exploiting a season-long weakness for Villanova, which had struggled with perimeter defense.
"We worked really hard on trying to prevent them from getting 3s," Wright said. "They do a great job. They know you're trying to stop their 3s."
Paige had 14 points and Bullock added 15 as Williams also extended his NCAA record of consecutive tournament appearances with at least one win to 21.
Mouphtaou Yarou scored 17 points and Arcidiacono had 10 for Villanova.
A 15-0 run midway through the first half led to a 32-12 North Carolina lead and Williams seemed destined to comfortably cruise to victory No. 700. A jumper by McAdoo gave North Carolina its biggest lead with 7 minutes to go in the half.
But after going without a field goal from the 10:56 mark to 5:16 showing on the game clock, the Wildcats regrouped, pounced on some sudden sloppiness by North Carolina and closed out the half on a 14-3 spree to go into halftime trailing only 37-29.
Then, opening the second half on an 11-3 spurt, they finally caught up when Hilliard's layup tied it 40-all at the 16:04 mark.
"We just couldn't make a shot," said Hairston, who had 23 points. "We took some crazy shots, we rushed some shots, we turned the ball over and at the same time Villanova was coming down and getting chip-ins and easy two-point plays."
Hilliard's bucket and Pinkston's putback gave Villanova a 44-42 lead, its first since it was 4-3. But at the 12:06 mark, Bullock's third 3-pointer gave North Carolina a 47-45 advantage.
Paige, Hairston and McDonald all hit 3-pointers while the Wildcats were committing five turnovers during North Carolina's first-half run. After Leslie McDonald took a pass from Bullock and moved in for a layup, Hairston scored on an underhand scoop and McDonald drilled a 3 to put North Carolina on top 28-11.
Two free throws by McAdoo made it 30-11, then Pinkston and Arcidiacono hit free throws before Pinkston dropped in a jumper to end the Wildcats' field goal drought.
Pinkston got open for a 12-footer and Hilliard followed with another short jumper, making it 37-23. After a Tar Heels turnover, Tony Chennault kept the spree alive with another basket.