“We weren’t surprised,” David Noel said. “They withstood everything we tried to do, but in turn, we withstood everything they tried to do.”
To make matters worse heading into the game for Carolina, Roy Williams was hampered by a sore back that relegated him to a special stool beside the scorer’s table – although he spent very little time sitting in it after halftime.
"It's probably the most frustrating night I've ever had because I didn't feel like I was giving the club very much," said Williams, adding that his back went out on him early Wednesday morning and kept him bedridden right up until game time. "I tend to be pretty competitive and pretty passionate, and I didn't feel like I was giving them very much tonight."
Enter Tyler Hansbrough, who after being held to six points (and 10 rebounds) by the Wildcats, and limited to just four points and three rebounds by St. Louis in the first half, erupted for 17 of his game-high and season-high tying 21 points after the break.
Before that, some may have wondered if the 6-foot-9 freshman from rural Missouri – with all his promise – was going to be enough to carry the Tar Heels in the paint during this “rebuilding” season.
But Hansbrough answered the call time and again down the stretch against the Billikens’ furious comeback attempts.
Though they went to the locker room tied in games with Gardner-Webb and Illinois, the Tar Heels (5-1) had yet to trail at halftime this season.
But 13 first half points by senior guard Anthony Drejaj, who finished 4-for-5 from beyond the arc, and 10 points from freshman guard Kevin Lisch stoked the Billikens (3-3), of the Atlantic 10, to a 34-31 lead at intermission.
The start of the second half, however, was a different story altogether.
Behind the rugged work inside by Hansbrough, 16 points and 11 rebounds by Noel – his first double-double since his sophomore season – and a 14-point performance by Reyhawn Terry to follow up his career-high 25 on Saturday, UNC didn’t disappoint the 18,215 Tar Heel faithful in attendance.
“In the second half, we did a much better job of getting the ball where we wanted it,” Williams said.
Looking much more like the team that had upset Kentucky in Rupp Arena just four days earlier, UNC immediately erased the deficit running off the first 13 points of the second half.
Carolina took a 44-34 lead, but after five straight St. Louis baskets, UNC was behind again. Noel hit Terry for a basket at the 13:13 mark, for a 46-45 lead, and the Heels wouldn't trail again.
The Billikens shot 56.2 percent from three-point range, better than any other Tar Heels’ opponent this year.
With too many big shots down the stretch from both teams to mention, Noel once again connected on another key three that gave Carolina a little breathing room. Wes Miller, perhaps the Tar Heels’ biggest surprise so far this season, nailed his third three of the game to give the Tar Heels a 61-55 lead with 5:14 to play.
Hansbrough would dominate the rest of the way as UNC went on a 14-2 run before Vas’shun Newborne converted a meaningless three with 13 seconds to play.
“The one thing about Carolina I’ve loved for a long time and respected is that they run the floor for 40 minutes,” St. Louis coach Brad Soderberg said. “We were a little careless with the ball and they got numbers going out. They really finished.”
Bobby Frasor finished with a season-high 12 assists, the most by a UNC freshman since Raymond Felton’s 14 versus Wyoming in 2003.
“It was probably a quiet 12 if anything,” Frasor said. “I was getting the ball to guys where they could score – throwing it to Tyler. Throwing it to Tyler is an assist waiting to happen.”
After a nine-day break for final exams, the Tar Heels return to action on Dec. 17 when they try to avenge last year’s season-opening loss to Santa Clara (3-2) of the West Coast Conference.