“We were just more gifted and talented, which is what it boils down to,” said head coach Roy Williams, who extended his NCAA record to 19 straight seasons with a NCAA Tournament victory. “I told [Mount St. Mary’s head coach] Milan [Brown] that I really thought his club played extremely well in the second half of the season… But we are more gifted than they are, and our guys really had a great workman-like attitude about playing the game.”
The Mountaineers entered Friday’s opening round contest with 11 wins in their last 15 outings after changing their offensive philosophy to a more up-tempo style. But if Piggy Lambert wrote the book on the fast break, Williams republished his own modern version and showcased it against Brown’s squad in Raleigh.
“We actually like when teams run with us,” sophomore point guard Ty Lawson said. “We practice like that every day, getting back on defense and then pushing back. It gives us a lot of opportunities to score on the break and that’s the way we like to play.”
Tyler Hansbrough – who else? – set the tempo on the opening possession, creating a turnover with a steal and sailing down the court for an unguarded transition dunk. The Sporting News’ National Player of the Year led the Tar Heels with 21 points and six rebounds, but his supporting cast also got into the action.
Deon Thompson (15 points, eight rebounds) and Alex Stepheson (career-high 12 points, eight rebounds) joined the ACC Player of the Year in dominating the Mountaineers with their size and athleticism. Thompson nearly doubled his point production during the entire ACC Tournament (8), and played a key role in helping the Tar Heels outrebound Mount St. Mary’s, 48-22.
“The margin on the backboards and what Deon and Alex gave us inside – that we haven’t had recently – was really a big plus for us,” Williams said.
In the backcourt, Lawson (21 points, four assists, four steals) and Wayne Ellington (16 points, six rebounds) proved too quick off the dribble and in transition for their Northeast Conference counterparts.
North Carolina posted a 60.6 field goal percentage (43-of-71) on the night, while holding the Mountaineers to 43.1 percent (28-of-65). The Tar Heel starters connected on 29 of their 44 field goal attempts, while UNC shot 63.6 percent in the second half, marking the third time in seven games that’s happened.
Prior to Friday’s action, Mount St. Mary’s was 2-9 on the season when its opponents scored 70 points or more before meeting. The Tar Heels led 60-41 at halftime and had posted 80 points on the scoreboard with 13:30 remaining in regulation. The 113 points scored was the second-highest total for North Carolina in a NCAA Tournament game, and it was the most since scoring 123 against Loyola Marymount in 1988.
There was no doubt that the team in Carolina blue was focused on executing at the highest level on Friday night, and not daydreaming about their potential matchup on Sunday.
“I felt like our guys would be prepared to play,” Williams said. “I tell the guys all of the time, if you’re looking down the road at somebody else, that’s where you’re going, down the road back home.”
The Mountaineers were unable to keep up with UNC’s frenetic pace, falling behind by as many as 44 points in the second half. Chris Vann (16 points) and Charlotte, N.C., native Jeremy Goode (15 points) topped the stat sheet for Mount St. Mary’s.
North Carolina used a 17-0 spurt midway through the final 20 minutes to end any potential thoughts of that dreaded No. 16 over No. 1 upset that has yet to occur in the NCAA Tournament. When Stepheson connected on two free throws put the Heels up 101-58 with 4:39 remaining, Williams cleared the bench by inserting Surry Wood, J.B. Tanner, Marc Campbell, Jack Wooten and Patrick Moody for the stretch run.
The rowdy bunch of Mountaineer fans that made the trip down from Emmitsburg, Md. stood out in section 105 Friday night – partly because of their enthusiastic, well-orchestrated cheers, but mostly because every other section in the RBC Center resembled a typical crowd at the Smith Center. Carolina blue permeated the dark N.C. State red colors throughout the arena, providing an odd mix that worked surprisingly well on this cool March evening.
“It was good to have everybody pulling for us and to have the home atmosphere, but I don’t think anything really compares to the Dean Dome to me,” said Hansbrough, who tied Duke’s Christian Laettner for the ACC all-time in free throw makes (713).