CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP)—North Carolina’s up-tempo freshmen proved they can win by grinding it out, too.
Tyler Hansbrough scored 18 points, freshman Brandan Wright added 16 and the top-ranked Tar Heels overcame a slow start to beat Virginia 79-69 on Wednesday night for their 12th straight victory.
“Those games are tough sometimes, especially if you’re a team that likes to run and likes to get up and down the court,” Wright said. “But we’re a team that can do a lot of different things. We’re a team that can also grind it out.”
North Carolina (15-1, 2-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) rallied from a nine-point deficit in the first half, outrebounded the smaller Cavaliers 47-34 and improved to 11-0 at the Dean Smith Center.
“Rebounding is something that you’ve got to do,” Virginia coach Dave Leitao said. “They’re very good at it. They’re the No. 1 rebounding team in the league. That’s what the stats tell me. That’s what the tape tells me. But you’ve got to battle them, and we didn’t battle them.”
J.R. Reynolds had 15 points, and Sean Singletary and Mamadi Diane scored 14 apiece for Virginia (9-5, 1-1), which went scoreless for nearly 7 minutes down the stretch and lost its second straight since winning three in a row.
The Tar Heels needed that rebounding edge because they were held to 37.9 percent shooting by an uncharacteristically pesky Cavaliers defense which entered as one of the ACC’s worst.
“I don’t like that we missed some shots that we should make, but give Virginia credit—they guard you,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
The Tar Heels broke open a tight game midway through the second half by scoring 10 straight points to take an 11-point lead. Virginia never got closer than five points the rest of the way.
North Carolina was playing as the nation’s No. 1 team for the first time since a two-week stint in February 2001, and for a while, the Tar Heels found themselves in a rare close game on their home floor.
“Those guys, they really did a great job of slowing the ball down. There’s not a lot of teams in the country that’s going to try to run with us, because we’re very explosive and we do a lot of things with a lot of great players,” Wright said. “They did a great job of slowing the game down.”
Williams’ team entered outscoring its visitors by an average of 31.6 points and had won nine of their previous 10 home games by 12 or more points.
“We didn’t get a flow going in the game in the first half,” Tar Heels point guard Ty Lawson said. “That’s why the score was so close. We’d get up a couple of points, then they’d get up and take a big lead. When they got a big lead, it was tough for us to come back because we can’t get in our flow, they established the pace of the game. It’s a tough game when that happens.”
This time, Singletary made it a one-point game when his 3-pointer from the left wing made it 53-52 with 12:44 to play.
But the Tar Heels countered with 10 straight points to take control. Quentin Thomas started the spurt with a layup and added a free throw, and Green ended the run when his 3 from the left wing made it 63-52 with 9:21 remaining.
Green had put the Tar Heels ahead for good with a free throw with 14:53 remaining to make it 50-49.
Lawson added 10 points for North Carolina, which has won seven of the last nine in the series. The Cavaliers were denied their first victory in Chapel Hill since 2002.
Laurynas Mikalauskas added 10 points for Virginia, which fell to 1-26 against No. 1 teams. The Cavaliers’ lone victory over a top-ranked team came in 1986 when they upset the Tar Heels 86-73 in Charlottesville.
Virginia’s largest lead came midway through the first half when Singletary’s three-point play gave the Cavaliers a 27-18 lead.
But they couldn’t keep up with the Tar Heels’ seemingly bottomless depth— nine North Carolina players played at least 10 minutes.
“They’ve always got fresh people,” Leitao said. “They never wore down mentally.”