The Bulldogs (11-4) were down only 28-25 to the Tar Heels with less than eight minutes remaining in the first half, and despite UNC opening up an 18-point lead midway through the final 20 minutes, UNCA trailed by only 10 points with 3:35 left in the contest.
“Everybody’s going to ask or think it’s an emotional letdown after such a big game for us against Clemson,” head coach Roy Williams said. “I don’t know if you can buy into that – it sounds more like an excuse to me.”
North Carolina (16-0) stumbled out the gate for the umpteenth time this season, allowing the Bulldogs to shoot 58.6 percent (17-of-29 overall, 4-of-8 from 3-point range) from the floor before building a 53-40 halftime lead. Senior guards Bryan Smithson (25 points on 10-of-15 field goals) and K.J. Garland (16 points, six assists) kept their UNCA squad within striking distance for the entire game, helping the Bulldogs to a 53.2 percent shooting night by the time the final horn sounded.
“I sound like a broken record – if you can’t guard the basketball, then you’re going to have problems,” Williams said. “You’ve either got to start guarding the basketball better, find some people that do, or start losing. It’s a pretty easy deal.”
Adding to the Tar Heels’ difficulty on the offensive end was 7-foot-7, 360-pound Kenny George (14 points, 11 rebounds). The junior center totaled only four blocks, but he altered countless other field goal attempts in the paint.
Junior All-American Tyler Hansbrough and sophomore forward Deon Thompson scored North Carolina’s first six points before George entered the game. The duo finished the first half on a 2-of-13 shooting slump, seemingly stumped in deciding how to attack the Chicago native.
“I know a number of occasions he made me turn around and was just altering shots in the paint,” said junior wing Marcus Ginyard, who finished with five points and seven rebounds. “He was obviously giving us a lot of trouble on the defensive end of the court.”
Hansbrough found the solution just minutes after intermission, however, driving around George from the free throw line to throw down a two-handed slam dunk over the big man, igniting the Smith Center crowd.
That was the attacking style that his head coach demanded in the locker room.
“If you’ve got a guy that’s 7-foot-7 or 7-foot-8 that’s blocking every thing that you take in there, you’ve got to either take it in strong or come over and sit down with me,” Williams said.
Hansbrough finished with 23 points and eight rebounds on 7-of-13 shooting (9-of-12 from the free throw line). Sophomore Wayne Ellington continued his stellar play with 19 points, fellow classmate Ty Lawson added 17 points, seven assists and five rebounds without committing a turnover and do-everything junior Danny Green posted 14 points, seven assists, six rebounds and three steals. The Tar Heels shot 42.9 percent (33-of-77) for the game, including converting on seven of their 19 three-point attempts, and won the rebounding battle 45-34.
North Carolina cannot afford the same type of effort and intensity when conference and instate rival N.C. State arrives in Chapel Hill on Saturday for a noon tip.
“I told the guys the non-conference schedule is over with now, and I congratulated them – there’s not many teams that I’ve had that have gone through non-conference play undefeated like this group did,” Williams said. “Now we’ve got 15 straight ACC games and we’ve got to raise the level of our play.”