League play is not going to be as easy for the Tar Heels (15-1, 2-0 ACC), winners of 12 in a row. And UVa reminded them of just how difficult it is donning the proverbial bull’s eye by racing out of the gate and hitting eight of its first 14 shots, including three from beyond the arc.
Carolina shot just 37.8 percent from the floor in the first half and missed its first five three-point attempts. Its 63.4 percentage at the free throw line for the game was the lowest mark of the season since losing to Gonzaga in November.
“I feel good about the win,” Roy Williams said. “I don’t like our free throw percentage and I don’t like the way we shot; but give Virginia credit, they guard you. Tonight every shot we shot, I felt like they were getting a hand up and challenging us."
The Cavaliers maintained their largest lead – ahead 27-18 with 9:51 to play in the first half. But Carolina took a 39-37 advantage into the locker room thanks to a rallying 13-3 run when Cavaliers’ All-ACC guard Sean Singletary began to slip into foul trouble.
“We didn’t get into a flow in the first half, which is why we didn’t score a lot of points,” Ty Lawson said. “During the break, Coach was a little fired up. He yells at first, and then he tells us what we need to do to make it better.”
A layup and a free throw by Brandan Wright capped a 19-6 run to put the Tar Heels up 72-58 with three minutes remaining in the game. It wasn't until then that UNC fans finally their team was in full command of the outcome.
The Tar Heels forced Virginia into 12 second half turnovers, while themselves committing just three in the final period. Carolina committed 10 turnovers for the third game in a row – tied for the fewest of any three-game stretch during Williams’ tenure as UNC’s head coach (last recorded during the final three games of the 2005 NCAA Tournament).
The Tar Heels’ 12 steals were also a season-high.
UVa coach Dave Leitao said, “When they kept coming at us with their defensive energy, it cost us. You can’t give up as many points off the offensive backboards and off turnovers. That took away any chance of us winning.
“This is as well-balanced a team as we’ll face, in that they successfully play 12 and 13 guys and rotate them.”
Tyler Hansbrough led all scorers with 18 points and Wright added 16, and Carolina dominated the rebounding battle (47-34) including a season-high 21 offensive boards.
Singletary finished with 14 points, but 11 of those came in the first half. J.R. Reynolds had 15, while Mamadi Diane added 14 before fouling out.
“The backboard should be in our favor,” Williams said. “We’re bigger and have more bodies than they do. But Singletary and Reynolds are so gifted getting in the lane and getting shots for everybody.”
Marcus Ginyard drew the second half assignment on Singletary, holding him to just three points after the break.
“I was just really trying to make him uncomfortable,” Ginyard said. “I felt the guards that were guarding him before were really pressuring him too much and letting him get to the side of them and that's what he really does well. So I just really played off of him and waited for him to come to me."
The leadership of resurgent point guard Quentin Thomas gave the Smith Center crowd reason to chant ‘Q!’ Thomas was 2-for-2 from the floor, had a pair of assists and a career-high five rebounds in 10 minutes of action.
“Since he’s come back, he’s been coming with a lot of energy,” Wright said. “Since he and Bobby [Frasor] have been back, we’ve improved as a team.”
Carolina now leads the all-time series with Virginia (9-5, 1-1), 121-48, with a 62-5 advantage in Chapel Hill and 20-2 at the Smith Center.
The Tar Heels travel to Virginia Tech (12-4, 2-0) on Saturday for a 3:30 p.m. contest to be televised by ABC.