On an afternoon that North Carolina honored its eight members of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame with a rousing halftime ceremony, the current crop of Tar Heels did not exactly produce a game for the ages. Carolina shot only 41.8% for the game, failed to generate points in transition for much of the day, and never really got Tyler Hansbrough into a groove. But tightening the defensive screws and showing patience against a pesky Virginia zone, the Tar Heels’ superior talent eventually took over.
Ellington led all scorers with 20 points, adding in six assists. Lawson finished just short of a double-double with 10 points and 9 assists, and for the second straight game he committed no turnovers.
“Everybody is where they need to be, and they’re getting open, knocking down shots,” Lawson said. “So I’m feeling really comfortable out there.”
“I feed off of him, not only on the offensive end but on the defensive end,” Ellington said of his backcourt mate. “When Ty gets into defenders and creates up-tempo, that gets everybody going. He’s doing a great job leading us from the point guard spot and being our quarterback.”
As impressive as the guards’ offensive play was in spots, their defense was even better. As a team, the Tar Heels held Virginia to 36.5% from the floor, and although they forced only 12 turnovers, it was clear the Cavaliers were rattled by the intensity of Carolina’s halfcourt defense.
Virginia’s freshman All-America candidate, Sylvan Landesberg, finished just off his season scoring average with 16 points. But he needed 16 shots in 33 minutes to hit that mark.
“He played young,” Virginia head coach Dave Leitao said of his promising rookie guard. “They did as good a job on him and on us defensively as I’ve seen them play. Sometimes it looked like they had more than five guys on the floor. If that remains a constant for them, then they’re going to be where they want to be [at season’s end].”
Playing a highly disciplined zone and a slow-paced motion offense, Virginia appeared to frustrate Carolina for much of the first half. Settling for jump shots and failing to carry over the sizzling touch from the win over Maryland, the Tar Heels shot just 33% in the first stanza. The Cavaliers used a 7-2 run to pull within 24-23 at the four-minute official timeout. But Carolina answered with a 9-2 run of its own to close the half with a 33-25 lead, paced by eight points each from Hansbrough and Ellington.
If the basketball wasn’t a treat in the first half, the halftime entertainment more than lived up to expectations. Williams briefly joined fellow Hall of Famers Billy Cunningham, Bob McAdoo, James Worthy, and Coach Dean Smith for the kind of photo op most programs only dream of before returning to the locker room. Fans were then treated to a video presentation featuring the Tar Heel legends. They responded with a huge ovation, particularly for the aging but energetic Smith, who warmly embraced and even bowed playfully to his former players.
Then, with the crowd still buzzing, the Tar Heels blew things open after intermission. An opening 8-0 run put Virginia’s players on their heels. The Cavaliers briefly rallied to cut the lead to 11, but back-to-back three pointers by Lawson and Ellington reestablished the working margin, and the outcome was never in doubt from that point.
““We know how easy it is to lose on any given day in the ACC,” Ellington acknowledged. “We wanted to come out and shut that down in the second half. It was good for us to have a game where we had to grind it out.”
“The first half it was like pulling teeth,” Roy Williams said. “I thought we were okay on the defensive end. But the first sixteen minutes of the second half, I thought we were really good on both ends.”
“We were able to keep them from leading in the first half because our defense was strong,” Lawson said. “That’s what we need to do from now on, whether our shots are falling or not. I feel like we’re maturing, getting better every day.”
Tyler Hansbrough finished with 15 points and 13 rebounds, his 41st career double-double, as he inched closer to J.J. Reddick’s all-time ACC scoring mark. Despite playing with a nasty cold, Danny Green added 17 points.
But the backcourt was the story of the game. Ellington says that he and Lawson are really rounding into form, playing off each other effectively. “It’s definitely key,” he said. “We’ve got to be consistent and be threats out there. We have guys inside that bang. We know Tyler’s going to draw a whole bunch of attention. So we’ve got to be able to step it up from the perimeter.
The Tar Heels next puts a seven-game winning streak on the line as they visit Cameron Indoor Stadium Wednesday night for the first of two matchups with Duke.
“We’re ready for it,” Lawson said. “If you can’t get up for this game, I don’t know what you can get up for.”