WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (AP)—North Carolina built a big lead with the impressive up-tempo style that coach Roy Williams loves—only to watch a determined opponent nearly come all the way back.
In the end, it still wasn’t enough to keep the top-seeded Tar Heels from advancing in the NCAA tournament or from adding another achievement to Williams’ impressive resume.
Tyler Hansbrough had 21 points and 10 rebounds to help the top-seeded Tar Heels beat Eastern Kentucky 86-65 in Thursday’s first round, giving Williams an NCAA-record 18 straight years with at least one tournament victory.
Reyshawn Terry added 18 points on 8-for-9 shooting for the Tar Heels (29-6), who advanced to face ninth-seeded Michigan State in the second round of the East Regional on Saturday.
Still, it was an emotional day for Williams, whose sister died Wednesday night after a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s disease. He was on the sidelines as always, surpassing mentor Dean Smith’s mark of 17 straight years with at least one NCAA win.
He said he doesn’t expect to miss any time with the team during the tournament, with funeral services expected to be held Sunday or Monday.
“It was a difficult day, no question about that,” he said. “Right now basketball items are the things that keep me going.”
His Tar Heels came out looking determined to beat down an overmatched opponent, romping to a 27-point first-half lead against the 16th-seeded Colonels (21-12). But they ended up needing almost the entire game to put them away, a familiar weakness all season.
Eastern Kentucky clawed back in the game with its pace-slowing 1-3-1 zone and closed to within four points early after the break. But playing in front of a home-state crowd—where the majority of fans wore light blue and cheered their every move—the Tar Heels ultimately had the answer by getting back to their up-tempo attack and controlling the last 10 minutes.
But it still looked like a wake-up call about the dangers of letting their intensity waver in March.
“I think it was so easy (early) that we lost our focus and then all of a sudden we got a little sloppy and made some bad decisions,” Williams said. “We have a really young team … and I think we thought it was going to be too easy.”
Hansbrough led the way with his strongest performance since suffering a broken nose on a flagrant foul by Duke’s Gerald Henderson on March 4. The 6-foot-9 sophomore went 9-for-11 from the field while wearing a new protective mask, which was more form-fitting than the one he wore during last weekend’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.
Hansbrough said the old mask obstructed his vision, possibly part of the reason he averaged just 10 points and 6.7 rebounds in the three ACC tournament games. But the 6-foot-9 forward looked much more comfortable scrapping in the paint against Eastern Kentucky.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to like a mask on my face after these couple of weeks, but I think the mask is a lot better,” he said. “It fits tight on my face. I can see a lot better and it’s just a lot more comfortable.”
After Eastern Kentucky had closed to within 48-44, Hansbrough keyed the decisive run with two straight baskets and a three-point play that pushed North Carolina’s lead back up to 60-48 with 10:47 left.
The lead grew to 26 points from there, with Terry scoring six of his baskets the rest of the way for a strong showing in his hometown. North Carolina finished shooting 65 percent while taking a 38-16 rebounding advantage against the smaller Colonels.
“I am incredibly proud of what our guys did here when we came back,” Eastern Kentucky coach Jeff Neubauer said. “For us to outscore North Carolina in a 13-minute period by 23 points, I never would have anticipated that happening. Our guys kept competing.”
Darnell Dialls scored 17 points to lead Eastern Kentucky, which was in the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons.