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North Carolina (4-3) built an early 10-6 lead, but Illinois (7-1) countered with a 15-4 spurt that gave Bruce Weber's squad a lead it would never relinquish. The Tar Heels crept within two points four times in the final five minutes of the first half, but Demetri McCamey knocked down two free throws and D.J. Richardson connected on a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give the Illini a 37-30 advantage at the break.
Illinois's lead grew to 16 points at 66-50 with 8:21 remaining. The Tar Heels cut the deficit to nine points with just under two minutes to play, but were unable to get any closer.
John Henson led North Carolina with 16 points on 8-of-11 shooting and also grabbed six rebounds, while Tyler Zeller posted 10 points and four rebounds. Justin Knox had arguably his best game as a Tar Heel with eight points and seven rebounds.
Mike Davis paced the Fighting Illini with 20 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and three steals. McCamey added 17 points and eight assists to go along with double-digit scoring efforts by Mike Tisdale (14), D.J. Richardson (11) and Jereme Richmond (12).
North Carolina shot 46.6 percent (27-of-58) from the floor, including a solid 54.2 percent effort in the second half. Illinois connected on 50.8 percent of its field goal attempts (32-of-62, 8-of-12 3-pointers), while narrowly outrebounding UNC, 35-34.
INSIDE THE GAME
Tyler Zeller entered Tuesday's matchup as North Carolina's leading scorer (15.5 ppg) and got halfway to his average just 10 minutes into the opening half, scoring eight points on 4-of-6 shooting.
But with younger brother and recent Indiana commitment Cody Zeller donning Carolina gear on the front row behind the UNC bench, Zeller only played eight total minutes in the first half due to foul trouble. He picked up his second foul after charging hard for an offensive rebound at the 9:43 mark, and as he jogged back down the court, head coach Roy Williams could be seen pointing to his head, signaling for his 7-footer to be cognizant of his fouls and play smart.
But it only took another 41 seconds for Zeller to pick up his 3rd foul with UNC trailing 16-14.
Williams took the blame during his postgame press conference, telling reporters that he should have taken Zeller out of the game momentarily to understand the seriousness of the situation. He also indicated that Zeller's foul trouble affected UNC's offensive strategy "a great deal."
The Washington, Ind. native sat on the bench the rest of the half and struggled to regain his early momentum, scoring just two points on 1-of-3 shooting in the final 20 minutes.
"It's always a little harder when you've been out that long," Zeller said. "I had my moments, but at the same time, I wasn't at the same point that I was in the first half."
Guard Production, or Lack Thereof
Senior guard Demetri McCamey showed why he was a first-team All-Big Ten performer last season in the first half, knocking down 4-of-7 field goal attempts (2-of-3 3-pointers) for 12 points to go along with his 4:1 assist-turnover mark.
North Carolina's backcourt rotation – Larry Drew, Kendall Marshall, Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald – couldn't match McCamey's first-half statistics, missing on all seven of their combined shots and failing to score a single point.
Strickland's penetrating drive through the lane for a lay-up two minutes into the second half served as the first bucket – and points – from a UNC guard. That quintet ended up with 22 points on 7-of-21 shooting and was also responsible for 14 of North Carolina's 18 turnovers. The Fighting Illini scored 26 points off those turnovers.
Illinois's starting backcourt of McCamey and Richardson scored a combined 28 points on 10-of-21 shooting (6-of-7 3-pointers), dished out 10 assists against five turnovers and forced five steals.
Williams pointed to poor decision-making and Illinois' defensive pressure as the reasons behind his guards' struggles.
"I think they are strong defensively with their perimeter guys," Williams said. "They use their two- and three-man to put pressure on the ball coming down the court, and that gives Demetri a little bit of a blow… We didn't make very good decisions, but sometimes you make bad decisions because the other people have you back on your heels."
North Carolina took a 10-6 lead into the first media timeout, and the score remained the same when the second media timeout rolled around nearly four minutes later.
During that stretch, the two teams combined for eight missed shots and six turnovers.