“Well, needless to say, this feels better than it did in Winston-Salem the other day,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. “I think in the first half we were pretty doggone good.”
North Carolina (15-2, 1-2 ACC) drew criticism for allowing Boston College and No. 2 Wake Forest to attack early and often, forcing UNC to play from behind for much of the second half in those losses. But the Tar Heels took their first step in dissipating the cloud of uncertainty that has hovered over this program for the past 12 days, jumping on the Cavaliers from the start with a 14-2 spurt from the tip.
Virginia (7-7, 1-2 ACC) responded with a 12-1 run to cut the lead to 15-14, before another UNC 11-2 streak opened up the margin and allowed North Carolina to build a 50-36 halftime lead.
The Tar Heels’ attacking style led to 20 free throw attempts – making 17 – in the opening 20 minutes, and ended with them connecting on 24-of-28 for the game. Hansbrough took 17 of those attempts, knocking down a season-high 15.
“One thing was to get the ball inside more,” Hansbrough said, when asked about the team’s approach heading into Charlottesville. “That’s something that we worked on in our post-ups, and when they double, look out to Ty [Lawson], and he hit some big shots for us.”
Lawson added 19 points and nine assists against zero turnovers, while Wayne Ellington contributed 13 points, eight rebounds and five assists. Danny Green continued his stellar play of late in the opening minutes, scoring seven of North Carolina’s first 10 points. The senior forward finished with 13 points, six rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals. Those three starters, along with Hansbrough, combined for 73 of UNC’s 83 points and 19 of the team’s 21 assists.
The Tar Heels struggled in their first two conference losses against talented guards in the Eagles’ Tyrese Rice (25 points) and the Demon Deacons’ Jeff Teague (34 points), and encountered another threat in the Cavaliers’ Sylven Landesberg, who entered the contest averaging 18.5 points per game (4th in the ACC). But Ellington led a strong defensive effort against the freshman, holding the 6-foot-6, 205-pounder to two points on 1-of-9 shooting.
“He’s smart offensively, but we knew what to expect from him,” Green said. “We knew he was going to drive, and we knew he didn’t take many threes, but we wanted to close out under control and make him give up the ball. So we did a great job in support and the guys guarding him did a great job on him.”
Jamil Tucker led Virginia with 12 points, while Calvin Baker and Mike Scott both added 11.
North Carolina held Virginia to 30.5 percent shooting – 23.9 percent in the second half – and 14.8 percent (4-of-27) from long range, while the Tar Heels connected on 42.2 percent (27-of-64) of their own shots. The Cavaliers did manage to win the rebounding battle, 50-47.
After a stunning start to the ACC season, the Tar Heels have refocused and are intent on working out of the two-game hole that they dug for themselves.
“It’s kind of different being in this situation, but it feels good,” said Hansbrough, who hyperextended his left elbow in the closing seconds of the first half. “I wouldn’t say all of the weight of the world is lifted off my shoulders, but it feels good to get a win, especially after you’ve been through two very tough games and you didn’t like the outcome.”
North Carolina faces a quick turnaround, as Miami arrives in Chapel Hill for a Saturday night showdown at 9 p.m. on ESPN.