“We feel very fortunate to come into Rupp Arena and get a win anytime you can possibly do it,” head coach Roy Williams said. “Kentucky took us out of a lot of things that we wanted to do with their defensive pressure… From about the 18 minute mark in the second half down to about the 10 minute [mark], we were really good.”
During that time frame, the Tar Heels used a 23-8 run to jump out to a 67-47 lead in what had been a tightly-contested ball game in the first half. North Carolina shot 55.6 percent from the field over the final 20 minutes, due in large part to point guard Ty Lawson’s surprise appearance (10 points, six assists) after being considered questionable only minutes before the opening tip.
The sophomore’s return was critical in pushing the tempo to get a few easy baskets against a physical and aggressive Wildcat defense.
“We were moving the ball, we were passing, doing a decent job defensively, we weren’t giving them second shots and we were making a bunch of shots ourselves,” Williams said about the run.
Junior forward Danny Green continued to flourish in his sixth-man role, scoring a career-high 20 points and adding six rebounds in 24 minutes of action.
Sophomore guard Wayne Ellington contributed 18 points of his own, while junior forward Tyler Hansbrough fought and scrapped his way to 14 points (10-of-12 of free throw attempts) and 11 rebounds. The junior forward had scored only 13 points total in his two previous meetings with the Wildcats.
Kentucky big men Patrick Patterson and Perry Stevenson battered Hansbrough throughout the afternoon, but the All-American succeeded in fouling both players out, including Stevenson in only eight minutes of action.
“He’s a big, strong kid, and he hits people without even knowing he hits them,” Williams said of Hansbrough. “But I’ve never coached a player that takes as much physical abuse as he does. And that’s not an indictment on the referees or the coaches, but it’s just that he’s a bull in a china shop, and all of those pieces of china like to hit him back.”
North Carolina’s stagnant offense needed a boost late in the first half, with only one shot falling from the perimeter in the opening 14 minutes. Green stood up and delivered, scoring 12 of UNC’s final 14 points. The North Babylon, N.Y. native’s firepower complimented the Tar Heels 25-13 rebounding edge and perfect free throw shooting (12-of-12) in overcoming a 32.4 first-half field goal percentage (11-of-34) to maintain a workable 37-32 margin.
“Danny definitely came in and gave us a boost,” Hansbrough said. “He hit some big shots for us and really came through.”
Kentucky’s three scoring options did their part as Patterson (19), wing Joe Crawford (21) and guard Ramel Bradley (19) accounted for 59 of the Wildcats’ 77 points, but no one else stepped up for head coach Billy Gillispie’s first squad. The Tar Heels held their opponents to 44.8 percent shooting on the night, while finishing with a 42.6 field goal percentage of their own. They also outrebounded the Wildcats 42-31 on the afternoon.
Lawson’s decision to return to the starting lineup was made shortly after the team’s second warm-up session when he checked the soreness in the right ankle that he sprained last weekend against BYU.
“It felt good – just a lot of movement’s got it hurting a little bit,” Lawson said. “But other than that, it’s real good… I’m probably like 80-85 percent [healthy].”
North Carolina will play its fifth road game in 12 days when the Tar Heels travel to Philadelphia to face Penn on Tuesday night.