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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Tar Heels outlast Spartans in primetime slugfest

Posted by on Wed, Dec 2, 2009 at 3:38 PM

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CHAPEL HILL/SMITH CENTER — The revenge game that was supposed to be, wasn’t. In the marquee matchup of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Tuesday night — and a rematch of last season's national championship game, when North Carolina blew out Michigan State — the Tar Heels notched an inspired victory over the Spartans 89-82.

The Heels not only earned a key non-conference win over a ranked opponent, they redeemed themselves after getting embarrassed by Syracuse a couple weeks ago in New York. Carolina benefited from by far the most raucous crowd to inhabit the Smith Center this season, and a furious start culminated in a Dexter Strickland three-pointer at the end of the first half to give the Heels a 16-point lead at halftime.

Carolina expanded that lead to 19 points at the open of he second half, but the Spartans clawed their way back in and were able to put a scare into the home squad down the stretch. Nevertheless, the Heels improved to 7-1 this season and now boast wins over two top-25 opponents (Ohio State being the other).

While game reports are ubiquitous today, one largely overlooked element of this game was that Carolina’s eventual NCAA Tournament seeding may receive a special boost because of the Big Ten’s prominence. The Big Ten is considered by many to be the best conference in the nation this season, and the Heels’ victories over two of the conference’s best outfits will weigh heavily in terms of earning a favorable seed for the national tourney in the spring.

Back to last night, sophomore guard Larry Drew continues to scintillate. Drew scored 18 points on 6-for-7 shooting, adding six assists and hitting some clutch free throws. Ed Davis put together his second huge game, scoring 22 points on 8-for-10 from the field.

The most surprising storyline from the game was Carolina’s 11-2 run authored by a lineup including four freshmen, a class that to this point had not delivered on the court as expected.

The clubs tied in rebounding at 39 apiece (MSU traditionally is very tough on the glass), and UNC shot an eye-popping 58 percent from the field against the Spartans’ 43 percent, including just 2-for-20 on threes.

That disparity begs a question: How was this game at all competitive?

The answer is one that may limit Carolina’s long-term chances this season. The club continues to commit lots of turnovers (17 versus MSU’s 11), and the Heels hit just 18-for-30 from the foul line, two season-long problems that may not get fully resolved this year.

Still, there’s no point in dwelling on the Heels’ shortcomings in light of such a big win. The Heels certainly will have plenty of opportunities to get exposed, and most teams will not choose to defend Carolina man-to-man as the Spartans did.

UNC will travel to Kentucky on Saturday for yet another center-stage showdown, the major subplot of the game being that UK freshman guard John Wall — a native of Raleigh and self-admitted Carolina fan who never received a scholarship offer from the Tar Heels — gets his shot to make a statement.

To see the UNC/MSU box score, click here.

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