CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Deon Thompson has helped top-ranked North Carolina get off to a good start despite playing without injured star Tyler Hansbrough. Now, just as the reigning national player of the year appears close to returning, the Tar Heels could be losing another key contributor inside.
Thompson scored a career-high 20 points to help North Carolina beat Kentucky 77-58 on Tuesday night, his second straight confidence-building performance in Hansbrough's absence to start the season. But freshman 7-footer Tyler Zeller suffered a wrist injury late in the game that had coach Roy Williams sounding pessimistic.
Zeller, who has started the first two games for Hansbrough, was injured after taking a hard foul by Ramon Harris in transition after a turnover. Zeller fell to the ground under the basket and got up holding his left wrist before heading to the locker room with 1:26 left and eventually being taken to a hospital for X-rays.
"It doesn't look good," Williams said.
The apparent injury put a damper on an otherwise easy victory for the Tar Heels (2-0), who led by double figures 4 minutes into the game and never looked back in a matchup of the winningest programs in men's college basketball. The Tar Heels have beaten the Wildcats in each of the past five seasons.
Hansbrough has missed almost three weeks of practice with a stress reaction in his right shin, while top defender Marcus Ginyard is out until December after foot surgery. But the Tar Heels didn't need them to send the Wildcats to their first 0-2 start since the 2001 season.
Their trapping defense forced 28 turnovers by Kentucky -- which had 25 in its opening loss to VMI -- while Thompson led an offense that spent much of the game on cruise control with a comfortable lead.
After matching his previous high with 17 points in the opener, Thompson was 10-of-16 from the field and had nine rebounds before leaving to a standing ovation and fans chanting his name after he fouled out with 2:45 left.
"The ball's going in the basket," Thompson said. "It's just staying a little later after practice and getting some shots up, and in practice taking game shots -- make sure that those are shots I'm going to take in the game. I don't sit there and shoot 3s."
Williams said Hansbrough did some limited work in Monday's practice and the team could know more about his status Thursday. North Carolina travels to UC-Santa Barbara on Friday before heading to the Maui Invitational.
"The bottom line is I think he probably could have already played," Williams said. "Why rush something like that? I said from day one that we were going to be extremely conservative and that's what we've been already."
Patrick Patterson had 19 points and 11 rebounds to lead Kentucky, which was coming off a 111-103 loss to the Keydets for the Wildcats' second stunning early season home loss in as many seasons.
"We're just making too many mental errors even though it's the second game of the season against a really good team," Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie said.
Considering how the Keydets' run-and-gun style frustrated the Wildcats, it was understandable why Gillispie was so concerned about the Tar Heels' fast-paced offense -- with or without Hansbrough. North Carolina got off to exactly the kind of start Gillispie had worried about.
Its traps caused all kinds of problems early, speeding up the Wildcats and keeping them from getting the ball inside to Patterson -- the matchup that most concerned Williams with Hansbrough sidelined. Instead, the Wildcats committed six turnovers in the first 5 1/2 minutes to help the Tar Heels run out in transition to a 15-2 lead.
The Tar Heels quickly increased the margin, converting a backcourt turnover into a 3-pointer from Wayne Ellington then forced another one that led to an alley-oop pass from Ty Lawson to Ellington for a dunk and a 25-6 lead midway through the half.
"We knew they had the capability to turn the ball over a lot," said Ellington, who had 16 points. "That's what wanted to do: put a lot of pressure on them. As we did that, we were able to get steals and easy buckets and get everybody involved. When everybody's having fun like that, I think we're a very tough team to beat."
Kentucky never had an answer. The Wildcats got no closer than 11 points, fell behind by 16 at halftime and trailed by as many as 21 midway through the second half.
"It was horrible," Patterson said of Kentucky's start. "All the hard work that we put in during practice and coming out here with the mind-set to win, and then things go the wrong way in the first 10 or 15 minutes of the game. Then we had to start playing from behind."
The game drew actress and noted Kentucky fan Ashley Judd, who made good on a pledge to attend the game during a campaign stop in Chapel Hill last month to support President-elect Barack Obama. Judd had promised to sit among the light blue-clad students for the game if the state -- which hadn't cast its electoral votes for a Democrat since 1976 -- voted for Obama.
She joined the rowdy student section behind the basket near the UNC bench at the start of the second half, drawing plenty of attention from students snapping pictures with cell-phone cameras. She also gave a wave to former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards -- the 2004 Democratic vide-presidential nominee and 2008 presidential candidate -- and his wife, Elizabeth, in the stands a few sections over.