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December 1, 2009CHAPEL HILL - The players in the jerseys were different, but Michigan State had to be feeling that same sickening feeling that has accompanied all of its recent history against North Carolina.
The 11th-ranked Tar Heels, despite having a radically different roster from the one that beat the Spartans for the national championship in Detroit in April, came out firing like that title team and notched an 89-82 win against No. 9 MSU.
"There was no confetti falling from the sky, but it was definitely a good win for this team," UNC forward Deon Thompson said.
This group, though not of national championship caliber at the moment, showed it can be a pretty good team when it wants to.
Ed Davis and Larry Drew II had career highs in scoring for the Tar Heels (7-1), who shot 58 percent in the game.
Carolina was dominant in the first half - much like it was in Detroit - but allowed Michigan State (5-2) to battle back in the second half, cutting the Heels' once-robust lead to six points with less than two minutes to go.
"The first half, we really played well," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "In the second half, I don't think we were as attentive to details, and yet we made big plays down the stretch."
Carolina did struggle to hit free throws in the final minutes, but twice Will Graves who otherwise had a negligible impact on the game, tipped the ball out to get it back for the Tar Heels.
"Those were two big plays," Williams said.
The Tar Heels got the mix of solid play from their veterans and freshmen in the first half, one that had been missing to this point in the season.
Dexter Strickland scored nine points and had three assists, while John Henson blocked a career-high four shots and looked far less lost than he has previously.
With a lineup featuring Thompson and four freshmen, the Tar Heels went on an 11-2 run - with all 11 points scored by freshmen - to go up 30-21 midway through the first half.
Then there was another spurt at the end to send Carolina to the locker room with a 50-34 advantage.
The last sequence of the half was a perfect example of what went right for UNC.
At the defensive end, Marcus Ginyard locked down Michigan State's Kalin Lucas in the final seconds, leading to a rebound for Strickland, who dribbled down the floor and drained a three as the buzzer sounded.
"In the first half, everybody who came in gave us something positive," Williams said.
Carolina shot nearly 64 percent in the first half, and for the third time in a row, the Heels scored at least 50 points against the Spartans in the first 20 minutes.
It was clear that playing a ranked team in front of a raucous home crowd did wonders for Carolina's mental participation early.
"We do get enthusiastic, we do get attentive, we do get fired up to play some good teams," Williams said.
Even without stakes as high as a national championship, this was a huge win for North Carolina because it showed that despite being hampered at times by inexperience and a lack of chemistry, its talent can come together when needed.
"We had no doubt in our minds that we're a Top 15 team or whatever," Davis said. "We knew it was going to take time. We're still not where we want to be. It's a long season."