Williams indicated that the reigning national player of the year had practiced several days in a row, getting in a maximum of 25 minutes during each session. The coaching staff has tried to err on the side of caution with Hansbrough, although Williams suggested that he “could have played as early as Tuesday of last week.”
Despite obvious signs of rust, his contributions were crucial against a feisty Gaucho squad that kept the deficit to single digits until the midway point of the second half. Hansbrough scored 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds in 25 minutes of action, helping Ty Lawson (19 points on 6-of-7 shooting) and Wayne Ellington (17 pts, 4 rebs) run the Heels to a 3-0 record.
“Everybody knows that I didn’t play the best, but I was just trying to come out there and get back into the groove of things and help out my team and win,” said Hansbrough, who missed the first two games of the season due to a stress reaction in his right shin. “I feel a little out of shape. I haven’t been on the court in a while and I haven’t really practiced much, but that will come back.”
Deon Thompson (12 pts, 10 rebs), Danny Green (11 pts, 3 reb) and Ed Davis (10 pts, 3 reb) joined their teammates in double figures as the Tar Heels used a 16-6 second-half spurt to eliminate any upset thoughts in the Gauchos’ minds.
“We played with a great deal of poise,” Williams said. “It was very balanced – you look down and you’ve got six guys in double figures, and that’s important for us with the way we like to play. We weren’t as smooth as we would like to be, to say the least. We’ve had a lot of guys in and out of the lineup, and the fact that we’re playing [our] first true road game.”
The Gauchos (1-2) did their best impersonation of Santa Clara, circa 2005, using a 17-4 run to jump out to a 27-22 lead midway through the first half. UC Santa Barbara fans packed the Thunderdome with 6,000 strong, and the raucous crowd provided an intense home court advantage for the Gauchos in what head coach Bob Williams termed “the toughest ticket by far the past 11 years.”
But Lawson knocked down back-to-back 3-pointers to put North Carolina back on top for good, igniting a 13-0 run that helped to build a 45-37 halftime lead.
Freshman guard James Nunnally (19 pts) provided the offensive spark for the Gauchos, while their matchup zone frustrated North Carolina throughout the evening. The Tar Heels shot 47.5 percent (28-of-59) from the floor, and allowed UC Santa Barbara too many open looks early, as the Gauchos connected on 51.9 percent of their field goal attempts in the opening 20 minutes.
North Carolina answered in the second half, holding its opponent to 39.3 percent shooting on 11-of-28 shooting.
“We put an emphasis on helping on the drive and just putting a hand up on the shot,” Lawson said. “It’s what we’ve been working on in practice, so it was just translating it to the game.”
UNC did resume its winning ways on the boards, outrebounding the Gauchos, 40-28, and also forced 21 turnovers.
But while Hansbrough’s return is an obvious positive development, it by no means indicates that his injury is completely in the past.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do in Maui,” Williams said. “I don’t know that I can think about playing him three days in a row. If you held a gun to my head right now, I’d say I’m not going to play him three days in a row.”
North Carolina resumes its West Coast swing on Monday at the Maui Invitational as it opens the tournament with host Chaminade.