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"When we were watching film, the first highlight they showed was the final score and one of the guys from Santa Clara holding up his jersey," freshman point guard Bobby Frasor said of the revenge factor. "They showed a clip of it, but in reality, all those guys are gone, so you can't really say it's revenge since it's a completely new team."
Carolina's personnel losses have been well documented, but the Heels did not suffer alone. The Broncos (4-4) lost three starters from last year's team that upset the Tar Heels, including Kyle Bailey and Doron Perkins, who combined for 31 points in last year's win.
One Broncos star from that game did return, and his trip to Chapel Hill will be one he'd like to soon forget. Senior Travis Niesen (26 in last year's game) led the Broncos from the outset and his six points helped Santa Clara get out to a quick 11-6 lead in front of the Smith Center fans.
His early play sparked his teammates, but his physical style and his ball toss off of Tar Heel David Noel woke up the home crowd and those 20,225 in attendance forced Niesen to play through a hail of boos every time he touched the ball.
Tyler Hansbrough, Carolina's lone productive big man, met his match in a tussle with the biggest man he's faced in his basketball career - 6-10, 329 pound center, John Bryant. Just a freshman, Bryant's size is visually imposing.
"I tried using my strength one time but I figured out that didn't work, so I had to fall back on my quickness," Hansbrough said of the matchup. "I wasn't really focusing on (getting him in foul trouble) but that's the way it turned out."
Hansbrough's approach paid off early as the first half battle of the big versus real big was short lived and two quick fouls sent Bryant to the bench just 2:50 in to the game.
With Bryant out of the way, the Broncos countered with another freshman, Okechuckwu Mbanugo. The 110 pound weight difference changed the course of the game, as Hansbrough worked his way around the smaller Bronco for eight first half points to lead the Heels at the break. Point guard Bobby Frasor added seven on 3-of-3 shooting that included one three pointer.
Frasor's second three-pointer opened the second half, as North Carolina looked more like the team that won five of its first six ball games of the year than the rusty crew that showed up in the first half.
The Heels methodically pushed the margin to 52-37, with Noel and junior Reyshawn Terry carrying the bulk of the scoring while Santa Clara struggled finding its mark from the floor. When Niesen was hit for a technical foul during a scrum with Hansbrough at the 9:29 mark, the tough competitive game came to an end. Carolina would reel off eight quick points and lead by 19 on a Terry three pointer with 8:18 remaining.
Niesen's struggles continued throughout the second half. The senior could manage only one basket in nine attempts (6-of-18 on the game) all while being serenaded with those Smith Center boos. He would finish the game with 14 points and ten rebounds to lead the Broncos.
"I told him, ‘That only happens to good players so don't worry about it. When the crowd pays you that much attention, that just lets you know that you are good.'" Noel said when asked about his matchup with the leader of the Broncos, "He just laughed it off. He's a good dude, he's definitely a great player."
With Niesen no longer a factor and his teammates unable to step up with any help, Carolina iced away the win with the final margin coming via Michael Copeland's baseline jumper with 21 seconds left. Hansbrough's 14 points led five Tar Heels in double figures. Quentin Thomas, in his first action since November 25th, did not score in ten minutes of action backing up Frasor.
"Overall, I think it was a good effort for us particularly since we've been in exams all week. Bobby and Tyler even had exams today at 12:00," Coach Williams said following the win. "I feel pretty doggone good about it. The kids feel pretty good, we've got to make a little bit of a trip tomorrow and play a little bit more before we go see Santa Claus."
The Heels head west to face the Southern California Trojans on Wednesday night. Then the team will head its respective ways for the holiday before gathering back in Chapel Hill to face UNC-Asheville in the Smith Center on December 28th.