“Basically for us, it was an opportunity to get that bad taste out of our mouths that we had after the game on Sunday,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference, referring to the 85-78 upset loss to Boston College.
While last weekend’s stunning defeat will leave significant scar tissue for this North Carolina squad, Wednesday’s contest provided the necessary outlet to allow the healing process to begin before returning to conference play on Sunday.
“I think we’ve all had it on our minds in practice,” senior forward Tyler Hansbrough said. “We came out and everybody had a very intense practice. Everybody was disappointed and we felt that there were some things that we wanted to do better as a team. But also, there was this feeling that we wanted to get some of that out of our system, some of that feeling of disappointment in coming out and playing well tonight.”
Hansbrough led the Tar Heels with 24 points and seven rebounds, while Deon Thompson (15 points, six rebounds), Ty Lawson (15 points, eight assists), Danny Green (14) and Wayne Ellington (10) joined the reigning national player of the year in double figures.
North Carolina (14-1) shot a blistering 58.6 percent from the field on 41-of-70 shooting, but the story on Wednesday focused solely on the reemergence of UNC’s defensive presence. After holding their first eight opponents to 37.4 percent, the Tar Heels had faltered on that end of the floor since the Oral Roberts victory, allowing their last six opponents to shoot 44.1 percent from the field.
College of Charleston (10-3) appeared to be on its way to continuing that trend, using a penetrate-and-pitch offense to capitalize on North Carolina’s double-downs in the post. The Cougars knocked down eight of their 18 3-pointers in the opening half to post a 46.9 percentage on 15-of-32 shooting.
The Tar Heels’ offensive firepower had enabled them to enter halftime with a 53-41 lead, but the lockdown mentality that accompanied them out of the locker room ended any thoughts of a second-straight upset. North Carolina used a 15-0 spurt that overlapped the halves to build a 23-point lead, and never looked back.
The last time College of Charleston allowed an opponent to eclipse the century mark was when South Carolina State defeated the Cougars, 108-97, on December 6, 1977 – a span of 951 games that was the second-longest in the country.
College of Charleston scored its first 10 points of the game in a little over three minutes, but needed 10 minutes and three seconds to put its 11th second-half point on the board. Bobby Cremins’ squad missed nine of its first 11 shots after the break, thanks to Williams’ adjustment to stop double teaming on the perimeter and in the paint. The Cougars connected on just 21.6 percent of their second half shots (8-of-37), bringing their game average down to 33.3 percent (23-of-69).
“We got better hands up on shots, boxed out, got rebounds and started running,” Green replied when asked about the dramatic defensive improvement in the second half.
Nothing typified the Tar Heel defense more than a forced shot clock violation after the Cougars emerged from a television timeout with just under 12 minutes to play.
Tony White’s 16 points led College of Charleston, while Donavan Monroe and Antwaine Wiggins both added 12 points.
Sophomore wing William Graves (four points, three assists, six rebounds) and freshman Ed Davis (eight points, seven rebounds, two blocks, two steals) continued their maturation on Wednesday, providing valuable minutes off the bench, as well as strong play on the defensive end of the floor.
North Carolina’s second half performance is comparable to the dominating displays this team put on against top-25 opponents Notre Dame and Michigan State earlier in the season, but that had gone missing in recent weeks. For the Tar Heels to live up to their lofty preseason expectations, that level of production will be required.
“It’s pretty simple – we just have to show up and play defense,” Hansbrough said when asked what it will take for this team to reach its goals. “We have to buy into it. We can’t have little lapses where we get tired and our support is not there. Everybody has to trust somebody.”
The Tar Heels face arguably their toughest test of the season on Sunday, traveling to Winston-Salem to clash with fourth-ranked Wake Forest in a pivotal ACC showdown.