Little had been done to slow down high flying UNC in its early contests, but Winthrop, the reigning Big South Conference champs, hit eight first-half threes and led by as many as 12 points before taking a shocking 38-30 lead into the locker room at halftime.
“I challenged them at the half, because I thought they were trying to be too cute and were being too careless,” Roy Williams said describing the instructions he leveled on his team. “At one point I just said let's get down and guard them man-to-man and to just take pride in guarding their man.”
Eagles guard Torrell Martin had connected on six of eight three-point attempts in scoring 20 points before the break, as the ghosts of early season Queen City letdowns appeared ready to haunt the highly-touted Tar Heels once again.
But just like so many times in the past, UNC opponents that had blistered the nets from long range in the first half, went cold in the second.
This was again the case with Martin, who converted just two of his first six three-point attempts to start the second half; and Winthrop (2-1) was 5-for-19 from the floor by the time Carolina capped an 18-4 run to take a 54-49 lead with 7:27 to play.
One play later after a Hansbrough steal, Lawson took the outlet pass and found Brandan Wright for a monstrous alley-oop slam to the sound of 7,362 partisan Tar Heel fans at Bobcats Arena.
“It really put a challenge on us to come back. That’s something that will help us down the road,” said Tyler Hansbrough, who was again dominant in the paint, leading UNC (2-0) with 20 points and 10 rebounds despite constant hounding from double and triple teams.
“It was very physical,” Hansbrough said. “Their big man was very difficult to post up, but I’m fine with that. I’m used to that.”
Freshman guard Wayne Ellington enjoyed his best performance to date scoring 13, and at times, along with Hansbrough, keeping the Tar Heels within reach during Winthrop's torrid shooting stretch.
Defensive specialist Marcus Ginyard responded to Williams’ orders to shut Martin down once and for all. Martin shot just 2-for-9 from the field and was 1-for-8 from beyond the arc in the second half.
“I could tell he was getting a little frustrated, and I just fed off of that,” Ginyard said. “Coach always talks about guarding your man the way you wouldn’t want to be guarded.”
Martin, last year’s Big South Player of the Year, said, “I always seem to feel hot every time I’m on the court, whether I am or not,” Martin said. “But I came out in the second half cold.”
Ty Lawson appeared uncomfortable at the point guard position early, as he penetrated too deep several times and got himself into trouble. After one pass into the Winthrop bench, Williams quickly got Frasor up to spell the struggling freshman.
“Bobby is just so much more experienced,” Williams said regarding the move. “In the first half I thought Ty was just awful.”
In eight minutes, Lawson committed five of the Tar Heels’ 14 first half turnovers, one night after UNC turned the ball over just 12 times the entire game versus Sacred Heart.
However, Lawson recovered in the second half with several key drives producing assists and baskets, as he finished with nine points while not turning the ball over at all after intermission.
Michael Jenkins tied the score at the 5:41 mark of the first half, and then Martin nailed his sixth three to put Winthrop up 29-26.
Incensed, Williams sent five new players to the scorers table following a timeout call by Winthrop. When Martin nailed his sixth three immediately after the break, all of a sudden Carolina’s Thanksgiving trip to the Big Apple was in serious jeopardy.
“We had a sorry attitude at that point,” Williams said. “But right at the end of the first half, we started guarding someone.”
Twenty of Winthrop’s first-half points came off UNC turnovers, but the Tar Heels only had three miscues in the second half.
“They played us better on defense than many teams will this year,” Williams said. “This kind of game is what we need to help us in the ACC.”
* Carolina steps out of the NIT tourney for one game Sunday versus Gardner-Webb (0-2) in Chapel Hill, then the Tar Heels will take on Gonzaga in the semifinals on Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.
* Danny Green suffered a sprained ankle that sidelined him for the second half. He said it will be further evaluated.