North Carolina (2-0) exploded out to a 15-2 lead before the first media timeout, setting a frenetic pace with defensive intensity in forcing six turnovers and seven missed shots in the opening 5:04 of play. That margin quickly became 25-6 four minutes later, and the Wildcats (0-2) would never cut the deficit below 11 for the rest of the contest.
“We had a fantastic first 10 or 12 minutes, and then after that I don’t think our defense was nearly as aggressive as we had opened the game with,” head coach Roy Williams said during his postgame press conference. “But right now, it’s one of those things that you feel really good about the win.”
North Carolina forced 17 turnovers in the opening half, thanks to 11 steals from seven different Tar Heels. That defensive effort smothered the Wildcats, holding them to 37.5 percent shooting (9-of-24) for the period.
“We came out and we wanted to jump on them early,” junior guard Wayne Ellington said. “We came out with a lot of adrenaline, a lot of energy, and a lot of intensity – that’s what we wanted to do. We wanted to come out, get in the passing lanes, pressure their guards and play great help team defense. The result was that we jumped on them pretty big.”
Deon Thompson (nine rebounds) spurred the Tar Heels’ offensive efforts in the first half, scoring 14 of his game-high 20 points in building a 41-25 lead at the break. North Carolina finished the night shooting 41.4 percent (29-of-70) from the field.
But Thompson's veteran teammates struggled in replacing Hansbrough and Ginyard, looking at times as though they were simply forcing the issue. Danny Green scored six points on 2-of-5 shooting and grabbed five rebounds, while Ellington finally found his rhythm in the second half, adding 16 points (5-of-14). Ty Lawson contributed 11 points and nine assists, but missed 12 of his 15 field goal attempts.
But as Williams has consistently harped on during the past several weeks, point production is not where the difficulty lies in replacing his two starters – consider that Will Graves (8 points) and Ed Davis (9 points, 10 rebounds) both provided solid offensive outings. The trouble arises on the defensive end of the floor, and North Carolina passed that test on Tuesday by utilizing 16 steals to create 28 turnovers while only coughing the ball up 10 times.
“The only stat that jumps out at you is the turnovers,” Williams said. “For us to get 70 shots and them to get 45 is a huge margin. So if you had to pick a stat, that would probably be the most important stat of the game.”
And while the Tar Heels were outrebounded 37-35, they doubled up the Wildcats on the offensive glass, 16-8. North Carolina scored 26 points off turnovers compared to Kentucky’s six points, while adding 21 to the scoreboard off offensive rebounds to their opponent’s four points.
Kentucky shot 44.4 percent (20-of-45) from the floor, but UNC’s interior players frustrated center Patrick Patterson, who only took three shots in the first 20 minutes. The sophomore finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds, while guard Jodie Meeks added 19 points (5-of-20) and seven rebounds.
Williams postgame press conference started with some bad news, but ended with a dose of positive information. Tyler Zeller (2 pts, 1 reb) was fouled hard by Ramon Harris on a breakaway dunk attempt in the closing minutes of regulation, and the freshman 7-footer fell awkwardly on his wrist. He was taken to the hospital for X-rays, and Williams indicated that, “It doesn’t look good – it doesn’t give us a good feeling right now.”
The sixth-year UNC head coach however also provided an update on Hansbrough, saying, “I think that he probably could have already played.”
But Williams also noted that his staff is approaching the injury very conservatively, and did not share an expected timeline for his reigning national player of the year’s return to the lineup.