CHAPEL HILL — Who said North Carolina couldn't shoot? That the freshmen weren't living up to their potential? That it would take awhile longer to put it all together?
By beating No. 9 Michigan State 89-82 at the Smith Center on Tuesday, 10th-ranked UNC finally started living up to all those preseason expectations, just in time to face two more top 25 teams - Kentucky and Texas - this month.
"This will give us the confidence that we can play with some of the best teams out there, because we are one of the best teams out there when we execute and play to our potential," senior Marcus Ginyard said after his team shot 59.7 percent, got 21 points from its bench and withstood a late-game push from MSU.
"It just kind of shows this team that when we want to get down and execute and do the things that we're supposed to do, we can be a big-time team."
It was supposed to be a revenge game for the Spartans (5-2), who returned three starters from a team that lost by an average of 26 points to UNC in last year's ACC/Big Ten Challenge and the national championship game. Instead, it was the Tar Heels, who returned only one starter from last year's title squad but led by as many as 19 points in the second half, who took control early.
Iffy with their outside shooting through their first seven games, the Tar Heels (7-1) swished a whopping 63.3 percent in the first half, while holding the Spartans to only one field goal for a roughly seven-minute stretch.
And the freshman class, dubbed one of the best in the country, finally showed why.
The score was tied 19-19 with about 12 minutes in the first half left when UNC's rookies scored all 11 points during an 11-2 run that gave it at 30-21 advantage. Wing forward John Henson led the surge, first taking a charge, then throwing down a dunk.
After blocking a shot, trying to save it from going out of bounds with his soon-to-be-patented pass-it-between-the-legs move, only to see MSU's Durrell Summers grab it and score - Henson was then fouled on a steal after freshman teammate Dexter Strickland made a 3-pointer.
Freshman forwards Travis and David Wear each added buckets, and Strickland scored again before a more veteran lineup took their place.
But that wasn't the end. Strickland (nine points, three assists), back in the game with about two minutes left, made a steal and passed it off to Ed Davis, who completed a 3-point play to give UNC a 43-32 lead. Then Strickland buried a 3-pointer at the halftime buzzer to give the Tar Heels a 50-34 advantage at the break.
"It was an exciting moment for us, to see the [freshmen] get out there and contribute in a big way for us," said Ginyard, who dished out a career-high seven assists to go with nine points. "They gave us a big lift off the bench. It didn't really surprise me, but I was excited to see it.
"It's something they're capable of, and we're going to need them to do that more often.
Carolina's rapid-fire scoring pace slowed in the second half. And MSU tried to make a push but had trouble slowing big men Davis and Deon Thompson, especially when forward Delvon Roe, one of the biggest Spartans, fouled out with 7:21 left after picking up his fourth and fifth fouls within a 30-second period.
Still, MSU cut its once 19-point deficit to to 80-72 with about two minutes left when Summers buried a 3-pointer, then to 80-74 when point guard Kalin Lucas scored on a drive. But the Spartans got no closer. Although the Tar Heels missed five free throws in the final minute, point guard Larry Drew II made five free throws to give UNC enough of a cushion for its best win of the year.
Raymar Morgan had 18 for Michigan State.
"You see what this team is capable of out there, when we have all those young guys coming in, helping out the starting five - and our starting five continued to play strong throughout the game," said Thompson, who finished with 14 points.
"It might have looked a little shaky at the beginning [of the season] when we were out there, but now you're seeing this team start to mold and form."
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