Tyler Hansbrough led the Tar Heels with 22 points, while Wayne Ellington added 15 points and Ty Lawson contributed 11 points and seven assists. But Nevada provided a tough defensive opponent with a liking for a slow tempo, and the contrasting styles resulted in a discomforting product.
“You’ve got to win some games like this that are a little uglier than you would like, but we’ve got a pretty doggone good basketball team that took a good shot from a good team and still came out ahead,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference.
North Carolina (13-0) shot 50.8 percent from the floor (30-of-59) in front of a hostile crowd – including students that had waited nearly 12 hours to see the nation’s top-ranked program – but Williams expressed his displeasure about Nevada’s second-chance points (20), free throw attempts (24) and rebounding edge (39-38).
But the sixth-year UNC coach was happy with his squad’s ability to withstand an early charge, as the Wolf Pack led 6-2 early and then 14-12 eight minutes into the contest.
“The thing that was most pleasing to me was early in the game they hit us pretty good with three or four baskets in a row, and our guys just maintained their poise and kept playing and never got frustrated or flustered at any point,” Williams said. “I think that maturity and that focus that we had on the basketball court was really important to us.”
The Tar Heels overcame that deficit with a 10-1 spurt to put themselves comfortably in front, and they continued to add to that lead, capped off by Ellington’s last second three-pointer before halftime to give his team a 41-27 working margin. Mark Fox’s squad was unable to fight back to within 12 points at any point in the second half.
Nevada connected on four of its first six shots, but North Carolina held them to 31.6 percent (18-of-57) the rest of the way. The Wolf Pack shot 34.9 percent overall, including a woeful 1-of-10 from three-point range. Freshman forward Luke Babbitt led Nevada with 22 points on 8-of-14 shooting, while sophomore guard Armon Johnson added 15 points despite coughing up six turnovers.
The Wolf Pack’s matchup zone gave the Tar Heels fits early, as Hansbrough’s first made field goal didn’t occur until the 6:13 mark of the opening half.
“They did a good job of fronting him [and] they did a good job getting people from the weakside,” Williams said. “Tyler wasn’t getting as low as we needed him to get, but Danny [Green] made one or two threes and Bobby [Frasor] made a three… It was a focus after the 12-minute timeout in the first half that we’ve got to do a better job of getting the basketball inside.”
But as Williams has said on numerous occasions, the purpose of true away games and a challenging non-conference slate is to prepare his club for the rigors of ACC play, and this group of Tar Heels believe their ready, starting with Boston College on Sunday.
“You start off with us going to Maui, and I think we got some good competition out there,” Hansbrough said. “And I think we’ve played a couple of tough games, so I think we’ll be prepared, but we just have to improve on some things.”
More important than the out-of-conference strength of schedule is the fact that Roy Williams – who has dealt with injuries to seven of his 13 scholarship players this season – is finally getting his roster healthy. Marcus Ginyard returned to action last Sunday against Rutgers, and senior forward Michael Copeland played for the first time since tearing the ACL in his right knee during a pickup game in May.
“Everything’s clicking [and] everybody’s getting healthy,” said Copeland, who scored four points and grabbed three rebounds in two minutes of action. “It’s a good time to come back because we start the ACC on Sunday, and we play Wake Forest next Sunday. So it’s a great time for everybody to come back and help the team and practice and be out there playing.”
Boston College opens the 2009 portion of the schedule on Sunday at 5:30 p.m. at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.