After butterflies and a pair of North Carolina turnovers spotted Villanova an early 4-2 lead, the Tar Heels settled down and utilized a 14-2 spurt to jump out to a 19-8 lead to set the tone.
The Wildcats’ defensive strategy entering this game was to contain Tyler Hansbrough and Co. in the post, but with Ty Lawson, Danny Green and Wayne Ellington all knocking down 3-pointers in the opening six minutes, that plan was spoiled from the get-go.
“It was big for us to come out and share the basketball and get easy ones,” Ellington told reporters during the postgame press conference. “That's what we did. We took open shots. They were going in for us. We built some confidence, and we went from there.”
As much as the Tar Heels have downplayed the significance of last season’s Final Four collapse to Kansas, the early anticipation at Ford Field was built around watching how UNC would start this contest. North Carolina fell behind the Jayhawks 40-12 midway through the first half a full 364 days ago. On Saturday, the Heels were out in front 40-23 with seven minutes remaining before halftime.
“[The quick start] built us some confidence and it helped us calm down and play our game a little more,” Green said. “In games like this, everyone’s coming out anxious and excited and has a lot of adrenaline flowing and you don’t really play your game… But once we hit some shots, it calmed us down and we started relaxing and not thinking about where we were at.”
Ever since the last visit to Ford Field four months ago, North Carolina has worked to rediscover that early-season blend of pressure defense and an offense with all of its vital parts clicking in unison. There have been hints and doses of that complex mix throughout the NCAA Tournament, but against a smaller Wildcats squad, all of the ingredients were readily available.
“They're a very, very good team,” Villanova head coach Jay Wright said. “I think they're playing their best right now. That's what we ran into. We ran into a team that's just playing better than us right now, that's better than us.”
Lawson (22 pts, eight assists, seven rebounds), Hansbrough (18 points, 11 rebounds) and Ellington (20 points, nine rebounds) reached double figures before the break, running the Tar Heels into the bowels of Ford Field with a 49-40 margin.
The Big East isn’t known for their alluring style of play, and Villanova held serve for the conference on Saturday by succeeding to drag North Carolina down to that level over the final 20 minutes. The Wildcats toggled the game’s pace in their favor early, working the deficit down to five points just six possessions into the second half.
But as they have done throughout the Big Dance, the Tar Heels answered with a 9-0 run – behind two Green 3-pointers – to push the lead back to 59-45. The Wildcats would not get within 10 points the rest of the way.
North Carolina did not play its absolute best in front of the 72,456 fans on hand at Ford Field, allowing Villanova to pull down 22 offensive rebounds en route to a 53-48 rebounding advantage while also struggling from the free throw line (22-of-37). But UNC held the Wildcats to 32.9 percent shooting (26-of-79, 5-of-27 from 3-point range) for the game – 26.3 percent in the second half – while managing 40.3 percent (25-of-62, 11-of-22 beyond the arc) of its own.
Scottie Reynolds led Villanova with 17 points, Reggie Redding added 15 points and Dante Cunningham contributed 12 points and 12 rebounds. For the Tar Heels, Green also reached double figures with 12 points, while Bobby Frasor grabbed five of his seven rebounds off the offensive glass.
Despite the rebounding difficulties and the ugly play down the stretch, North Carolina is one of the two teams left standing across the country.
“We're still playing,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “That's what we wanted to do. Jimmy Valvano's line about survive and advance is what we wanted to do.”
Next up for the Tar Heels is Michigan State, which defeated UConn, 82-73, in the first game of the evening. The Spartans, with a large majority of their fan base holding tickets for Monday’s 9:21pm tip, were vocal about their chance at redemption following December’s 98-63 shellacking that North Carolina provided them.
But the Tar Heels, with the national championship a mere 40 minutes away, are willing and ready.
“We can’t wait to play them either,” junior forward Deon Thompson said. “Trust me, we’re just as excited as they are.”