SANTA BARBARA, Calif. (AP)—Even at less than his best, Tyler Hansbrough was a welcome sight in the lineup for his North Carolina teammates.
A rusty Hansbrough scored 13 points in his delayed season debut, one of six players in double figures for the top-ranked Tar Heels, who beat UC Santa Barbara 84-67 Friday night.
Hansbrough missed the first two games for Carolina (3-0) because of a stress reaction in his right shin. Last season’s national player of the year had only practiced a few times this week after being held out since the injury was diagnosed in October.
“I’m not in the best shape, but it was good to help out my team,” he said. “I feel a little out of sync. I was just trying to come out and get in the groove.”
Coach Roy Williams said he decided 15 minutes before the game to play Hansbrough after watching him warm up.
“I wanted to see how he felt. He felt great about it,” Williams said. “Every time I took him out, he told me he was ready to go back in.”
Hansbrough played 25 minutes in the Tar Heels’ first road game of season, a sellout in the 6,000-seat Thunderdome. The last time the Gauchos hosted a No. 1 team was in 1991, when they lost 76-55 to defending national champion UNLV.
James Nunnally scored a career-high 19 points off the bench for the Gauchos (1-2), who fell to 0-3 against Carolina, all double-digit losses.
“My teammates looked for me early, and I appreciate their trying to find me and get me going,” Nunnally said. “I try to be a spark off the bench and just try to come with energy every game, and that’s what I did. It paid off.”
Hansbrough had played in all 108 games in his first three years for Carolina before missing the first two this season. He finished with seven rebounds, two assists, two turnovers, one blocked shot and one steal. He made 9-of-10 free throws, all in the first half, and dunked early in the second half.
Ty Lawson scored 19 points, Wayne Ellington added 17, Deon Thompson 12 points and 10 rebounds, Danny Green 11 and Ed Davis 10 for the Tar Heels, who controlled the boards, 34-24.
North Carolina opened the game on an 18-10 run, with Hansbrough scoring seven points—all on free throws—and coming up with key assists in his first minutes of the season.
But then Hansbrough went to the bench for a breather and the Gauchos put together a 17-7 spurt to take a 27-22 lead. Greg Somogyi, a 7-foot-2 center, got things going with a dunk, then Jesse Byrd scored six points in a row and Paul Roemer tossed in two 3-pointers that had the student section delirious.
“I thought we got a little more rattled at times that you’d like to see,” UCSB coach Bob Williams said. “And we’re not as far along in terms of being able to execute and control our pace. A couple of times we were in the midst of a pretty good run and we would just get overzealous and try to do a little bit more than what we we’re capable of.”
Hansbrough returned and having their floor leader back brought the desired effect. The Tar Heels regrouped and closed the half on a 23-10 run to lead 45-37. They scored 13 in a row, including seven straight by Lawson that gave them the lead for good.
“The first half they made a nice run and we made a nice run right back at them,” Roy Williams said. “We played with a great deal of poise. The enthusiasm of the crowd was sensational.”
The Gauchos came out strong to start the second half, twice drawing within five, both times on baskets by Nunnally, whose jumper had them trailing 53-48.
“They’re the No. 1 team in the country—they’re awfully good—and I thought we had some really good moments,” Bob Williams said. “We just need to put together a lot more of those really good moments to be the type of team that we really want to be.”
Carolina’s talent and speed eventually wore down Santa Barbara.
“Coach told us to come out and run plays,” Lawson said. “We were missing some shots. We’re probably 70 percent of where we can be.”
Hansbrough’s return came just in time for Carolina, which plays four straight road games before returning home on Nov. 30.
“It meant a lot,” Lawson said about having Hansbrough back. “Guarding the post and rebounding and scoring, he does everything.”
Freshman 7-footer Tyler Zeller is likely out for the rest of the season with a broken left wrist he suffered late in Tuesday’s win against Kentucky. Zeller started the first two games in place of Hansbrough. Top defender Marcus Ginyard is out until December after having foot surgery.
After the game, the Tar Heels headed to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational, where they’ll play Chaminade on Monday.
Roy Williams said he didn’t know if he would play Hansbrough three days in a row in the tournament.
“He turned it over a couple of times. It’s going to take him a little while. He’s human,” the coach said.
Santa Barbara’s rabid students were warned by the public address announcer before tip-off to keep their chants clean. They shouted expletives at Hansbrough as he warmed up and then did so again during a timeout in the second half. One of the referees heard them and yelled, ‘No,” at the students, who quieted down.