“I don’t remember anybody ever playing any better against us,” said Olson, 72, who took over the reigns in Tucson in 1983.
In an apparent classic tale of two teams heading in opposite directions, the Tar Heels (19-2) snapped Arizona’s 29-game home court win streak against non-conference foes which dated back to Jan. 26, 2002, when Connecticut left the McKale Center on the victorious end of a 100-98 overtime decision.
Carolina singed the nets and rattled the rims with 51 percent shooting, including a season’s worth of highlight reel dunks in 40 minutes of action. Conversely, the Wildcats (14-6) – losers of four of their last five – seemingly couldn’t throw the ball in water from a boat.
Arizona was a miserable 34 percent from the floor and a horrific 1-of-23 from three-point range.
“We’re absolutely ecstatic we got the win, but realistically, we caught them on a day when the ball wouldn’t go in,” said Roy Williams, who improved his overall coaching record versus Arizona to 5-2.
At one point during a second-half break, Olson walked over to under his team’s basket to “make sure there wasn’t a cover on it,” he said.
In what was billed as the biggest sporting event to grace the city in years, local newspapers forewarned fans of North Carolina’s seemingly endless bench depth. That premise was tested prior to tip-off when starting forward Brandan Wright and sixth-man defensive stalwart Marcus Ginyard were made pre-game scratches – both victims of the flu, both throwing up since the night before.
“Whatever it was, let’s hope it stayed in that (hotel) room,” Williams said.
Wright managed to put on suit and sit on the bench. Ginyard had to remain horizontal in the locker room.
Enter 6-9 bookend freshmen Deon Thompson and Alex Stepheson, as well as other Tar Heels like Danny Green, itching for more minutes.
“Coach emphasized it as an opportunity for guys to step up,” Thompson said.
Both Stepheson (10 pts., 6 reb.) and Thompson (14 pts., 6 reb.) finished with season scoring highs.
Arizona guard Jawann McClellan said, “We thought we came out ready, but I lost a lot of energy early and after the first four minutes, I was tired. A lot of us were tired. North Carolina is a good team. They’re a good, deep team.”
Williams took what many would have considered a debilitating set of circumstances and turned them into positive motivators for his team.
“We had a little bit of an edge that (Arizona) didn’t have,” he said. “Not having two important players gives you a little bit of an edge sometimes, because the rest of the team has to step up in place of them.”
However, as Williams said after the game, Ty Lawson kept UNC out in front in the first half. He finished with a season-high and game-high 18 points to go with eight assists, as six Tar Heels finished in double figures for the first time this year.
Reyshawn Terry tallied 15 points, while Tyler Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington added 14 apiece.
“We are so deep and have so many guys that can rotate in and out, losing one of our best players doesn’t matter,” Ellington said.
A 16-0 UNC run late in the first half provided Carolina with its first 20-point advantage. Lawson’s 14 points before intermission led all scorers, as the Tar Heels took a 43-25 lead at the break.
“Lawson really pushes the ball hard,” Wildcats senior Ivan Radenovic said. “We’d make a shot and (UNC) would have the ball down the court in three seconds. They’re probably better than Oregon.”
Arizona would trim the deficit to 13 early in the second half thanks to three jumpers by Chase Budinger, who led the Wildcats in scoring with 16 points (all in the second half). But UNC recovered quickly. And following fast break layups by Lawson and Green, Olson was flagging down a referee to call a timeout with 13:04 and the Tar Heels holding their largest lead of the game to that point, 59-37.
“They scored to cut the lead a bit, and we just had to say within ourselves,” Hansbrough said.
The home-and-home series wasn’t kind to No. 17/19 Arizona, which has now lost its last two games to Carolina by a combined score of 178-133.
UNC and Arizona will play again for two more seasons beginning in 2008-2009.
The Tar Heels’ win marked…
…the first time this season they’ve had six players in double figures.
…six straight halves on the road they’ve held opponents under 40 percent shooting.
…their largest margin of victory against a ranked opponent since No. 3 UNC def. No. 23 Maryland, 109-75, on Jan. 8, 2005, at the Smith Center.
…their largest margin of victory against a ranked opponent on the road since No. 5 UNC def. No. 6 Seton Hall, 83-54, on Dec. 4, 1991, at the Meadowlands Arena in East Rutherford, N.J.
Carolina returns home to face Miami Wednesday at 7 p.m. at the Smith Center.