The Philadelphia, Pa. native struggled to work into the offensive flow in the first 20 minutes, missing both of his field goal attempts. But an offensive rebound and the ensuing layup removed the zero beside Ellington’s name in the box score, and the exhibition began.
“I got some emotions involved,” Ellington told reporters during his postgame interview on Saturday night. “I missed some [shots early] and I kind of got angry. I went and got an offensive rebound and a put back and I think that just got me started.”
The Tar Heels (16-2, 2-2 ACC) had utilized a 13-0 run to end the first half with a 36-32 lead, and Ellington had no intention of letting Miami (13-4, 2-2 ACC) stick around and try to hand the Tar Heels their third conference loss of the season. The junior drilled three straight 3-pointers in a 60-second span to give UNC an early 50-43 lead after the break.
Ellington – who had only connected on 4 of his 16 3-pointers in ACC play – drilled three more long-range bombs several minutes later in a 129-second window, pushing the Tar Heels’ lead to 68-48 midway through the second half. In less than 10 minutes, the smooth-shooting guard had answered his growing number of critics with seven straight bombs from downtown, the most by a Tar Heel since Rashad McCants hit eight against Clemson in 2004.
In all, Ellington connected on 8 of his 14 field goal attempts (7-of-11 from 3-point range). In his previous six outings, he had only made eight combined 3-pointers.
“It was fun to see that youngster have some success, because it’s been tough on him,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “Nobody’s wanted to make shots more than he has. He’s worked at it and he’s kept a wonderful attitude and tried to do things to help us in other ways, but it was fun to see his shot going in like it was in the second half.”
After flirting with the NBA in the offseason thanks to a strong sophomore campaign (16.6 points per game on 46.7 percent shooting, including 40 from 3-point range), Ellington had been unable to find his groove through the first two months of this season, and his numbers plunged (12.8 ppg, 43.2 percent shooting, 34.6 from 3-point range). But he never hung his head in disappointment, despite the troubles.
“I wasn’t really pressing, but I was going to continue to take them, and continue to have faith in how I shoot the ball,” Ellington said. “That’s what Coach [Williams] wanted me to do, too. Just continue to be confident and he said they were going to start falling for me. Tonight just showed that if you stick with it, it can happen for you.”
Ellington’s eruption overshadowed Tyler Hansbrough’s solid first half, as he scored 20 of his game-high 24 points in the opening stanza, including 16 of UNC’s first 21 points of the game. Ty Lawson added 11 points and eight assists, while Danny Green continued his role as the designated stat-stuffer with 12 points, five rebounds, four assists and three blocks.
With North Carolina holding a 10-9 early lead, the Hurricanes clamped down defensively and grabbed five offensive rebounds in a 21-11 spurt to build a 30-21 margin. Miami could have been, and maybe should have been, up more at that point in time, but Green’s knack for highlight-reel blocks prevented a deeper Tar Heel deficit.
Dwayne Collins (13 points, four rebounds) appeared on his way to an easy dunk after a Miami steal found him wide open out front in transition, but Green tracked him down and blocked him solidly from behind. Two possessions later, it was Lance Hurdle’s turn, streaking down the court for a would-be layup when Green swatted the senior guard off the backboard.
For the ever-improving New York senior, his performance was more about getting back to the basics.
“It’s just playing basketball,” Green said. “We’re getting back to playing basketball. That’s what it is about. The game is about having fun. Of course, we want to win, but the game is about having fun… I just like having fun with my teammates.”
Jack McClinton led the Hurricanes with 21 points on 9-of-20 shooting, and Adrian Thomas added 10 points. North Carolina held their opponents to 39.7 percent shooting (27-of-68), while converting 44.4 percent (28-of-63) of its own field goal attempts.
Miami, which entered this contest as the league-leader in rebounding margin at 10.1, squeaked out the edge on the boards on Saturday, 41-40.
The Tar Heels return to action on Wednesday as Clemson comes to town for a 9 p.m. showdown on ESPN.