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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Tar Heels surge to win Carrier Classic

Posted by on Sat, Nov 12, 2011 at 7:34 PM

Roy Williams endured vertigo but presided over UNCs season-opening victory (file photo)
SAN DIEGO/ESPN — Top-ranked North Carolina opened its season atop an aircraft carrier on Friday night, toppling Michigan State 67-55 in the inaugural Carrier Classic.

Staged on the USS Carl Vinson — do yourself a favor and spend a couple minutes scrolling through these photos — this much-touted event entertained the hundreds of soldiers and veterans it was created to honor.

Barack Obama attended the game along with the First Lady, gave a somewhat bizarre stump speech during the pre-game buildup and then winced along with everyone else during a tortured rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner as performed by B.Taylor, the so-called “Stevie Wonder of Hip Hop.” And Roy Williams didn’t find his sea legs, struggling with vertigo and obviously not feeling well during the game. But to the basketball. …

Carolina’s bottom line result addressed the two primary objectives: Win the game and don’t sustain any injuries. Court conditions grew dangerous when the floor surface became moist and multiple players lost their footing, and the usual array of corporate stickers caused Michigan State freshman Branden Dawson to hurt his knee (he returned to action).

John Henson and Dexter Strickland starred for UNC. Henson, whose off-season offensive improvement paid off in several short jump shots, accumulated 12 points on 6-for-10 shooting. He was truly dominant defensively, swatting away nine shots and altering many more.

Strickland appears to be set for a big junior season. He played the best ball of his career late last year, and his enhanced ball-handling and decision-making led to 10 points, five assists and two steals against only one turnover.

Most fans felt Harrison Barnes had an average game, but he led all scorers with 17 points and added five rebounds, two assists and a block. Neither Tyler Zeller (nine points on 3-for-8 field goals) nor Kendall Marshall (six points, five assists, five turnovers) played up to par, explaining why Carolina’s offense struggled.

Concluding much from such a unique spectacle likely isn’t wise, but after this game and the exhibition, let’s say this: UNC’s defense has a chance to develop into Williams’ best since he returned to Chapel Hill.

Not only is Henson a dynamic shot-blocker, Zeller’s help rotations continue to befuddle drivers who continually knock him over and get tagged with offensive fouls. Strickland’s lateral quickness is excellent, and sophomore Reggie Bullock also has demonstrated excellent potential as a long wing defender.

Williams treated the Classic like an NCAA Tournament contest. Whereas he typically prefers to utilize a deeper bench during the regular season — he cites saving players’ legs as a primary factor, which makes sense when you consider UNC’s speedy tempo — he played all five starters more than 30 minutes against MSU.

Thus, Bullock (12 minutes) and promising freshman P.J. Hairston (nine minutes) didn’t factor as heavily into the rotation as they will during the next few months.

Carolina travels Sunday to the (relative) normalcy of Asheville, where the Tar Heels will play the Bulldogs in the first-ever game at Kimmel Arena.

Click here to view the UNC/MSU box score.

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