North Carolina set the tone against Kentucky from the outset, with an aggressive and energetic defense that fueled a big early run.
“We wanted to jump on them early,” Wayne Ellington said. “We came out with a lot of adrenaline, a lot of energy and a lot of intensity.”
Roy Williams called it “a fantastic first 10-12 minutes.”
Indeed, the Tar Heels led 15-2 at the first media timeout and opened it up further, with a Ty Lawson to Ellington alley-oop giving UNC a 25-6 advantage at the 11:33 mark.
“We came out with intensity, got on them early and it was hard for them to come back from it,” Ed Davis said. “The early start was overwhelming for them.”
It was a lead Kentucky would never overcome, getting no closer than 11 points from the Tar Heels the rest of the way.
But if there’s a lesson to be learned, it was the inconsistent play after the early run.
“We have to keep that same mindset,” Ellington said. “We jumped on them hard and we’ve got to keep executing.”
Kentucky’s season-opening loss to VMI provided North Carolina with a clear game plan for beating the Wildcats: force turnovers.
“We just knew that they turned the ball over a lot against [VMI] and that’s why we emphasized getting in the passing lanes, pressuring the guards and making them make tough plays,” Ellington said. “And as a result we got a lot of turnovers.”
That they did. VMI forced 25 UK turnovers – the Tar Heels forced 28.
“We were aggressive and got to where we wanted to be and put some pressure on them,” Williams said. “It was probably a combination of our defense and some mistakes they made.”
The Wildcats committed 10 turnovers in the first 8:23 of the game, thanks to eight Tar Heel steals from seven different players.
In a game where Kentucky shot a higher percentage than UNC from the field (44.4% to 41.4%), had more rebounds (37 to 35) and far more blocks (10 to 4), it was the turnovers that made the difference.
“The only stat that jumps out at you are the turnovers,” Williams said. “If you have to pick a stat, that’d probably be the most important stat of the game.”
For a team much maligned for its defense a season ago – especially at the end of its NCAA Tournament run – the defensive improvement is an important development. For UNC’s head coach, it’s to be expected.
“We’re not necessarily scrambling as well as I’d like … but our pressure overall is better right now -- but it should be,” Williams said. “I said at the end of the year last year that we got to be an average defensive team and I want us to be a very good one.”
For the last two preseasons, the player tabbed by his teammates as most likely to have a breakout season has been Deon Thompson.
The UNC junior delivered on the hype Tuesday night, scoring a career high 20 points.
“Deon, other than Tyler, probably worked harder than anybody else on our team in the offseason and may have done it the last two years,” Williams said. “It’s really satisfying to see the work he puts in the offseason to transfer to success out on the court.
“Deon was extremely important to us throughout the whole game … and we need for him to play like that.”
For a Tar Heel frontcourt missing two of its five players -- defending national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough and reserve Mike Copeland – and possibly a third after what appeared to be a serious wrist injury to freshman Tyler Zeller, Thompson’s contributions are crucial to UNC surviving this early season stretch.
“When we found out Tyler wasn’t going to be able to play, Coach emphasized that big guys will need to step up and take that role and Deon’s done a great job of it,” Ellington said. “He played really hard tonight – he had a lot intensity and that’s what we need from him.”
Thompson’s point production, on 10-of-16 shooting, was needed, but even more so was his work on the boards, where he grabbed nine rebounds – including seven on the offensive end.
“[My goal] was just rebound the ball and try to go to the basket strong - I did it in the first half and I just need to make sure to do that in the second half,” said Thompson, who had 14 points and six rebounds by halftime. “It feels good to perform and play well – it was a good feeling.”
The Smith Center faithful took notice. As Thompson walked to the bench after committing his fifth foul with 2:45 to go in the game, he received a standing ovation and chants from the student section.
“I’m going to try and continue to be aggressive, have fun and not put too much pressure on myself,” he said.
If Kentucky was to have any chance to upset the No. 1 Tar Heels, a big game was needed from sophomore post player Patrick Patterson.
North Carolina game planned for Patterson, choosing to pressure the entry passer while using one of the two Tar Heel freshmen big men - Ed Davis and Ty Zeller (who each recorded two steals) - to front Patterson, with a help defender filling in behind him. In the first half, they executed the defensive strategy to near perfection.
“They like to do the high-low thing and the way to take that away is to put the pressure on the guy passing the ball,” Thompson said. “I think coaches felt that with me pressuring the ball, it’d be a little bit harder for them to throw the pass, and with Tyler and Ed being taller and longer than me, it was difficult to get the ball over them.”
Patterson’s final stat line of 19 points is deceptive, as the majority of his baskets came well after UNC had built its big lead. Patterson didn’t get his first shot attempt until the 12:13 mark of the first half and attempted only three shots in the first half.
“It was working and the flow of the game I think was kind of taking away his shots,” Thompson said. “We were so aggressive defensively that they didn’t even have a chance to get into a set and get him the ball.”