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December 11, 2010CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - Maybe three straight wins after an emotional week that began with a thriller against Kentucky was just too much to handle.
Maybe a rematch looming next Saturday with the Texas Longhorns overshadowed the arrival of feisty stranger from out West.
Or maybe a week of final exams just caught up with the Tar Heels.
Whatever it was, the Tar Heels squeaked out a 96-91 win over Long Beach State Saturday evening behind 19 points from Harrison Barnes and 17 points from Leslie McDonald.
After the game, Carolina head coach Roy Williams said it was none of the above.
We still need to be honest about this game, though.
Carolina played sloppy.
The Tar Heels looked bored by Long Beach State.
They appeared to be sleepwalking through a game that should have featured the reserves in the final few minutes.
No, it wasn't necessarily a surprise that a young team may have been tempted to take a weak non-conference opponent for granted.
Long Beach State, undersized and seemingly overmatched, pushed the ball up floor and attacked the interior of Carolina's defense.
Point guard Casper Ware penetrated at will on his way to scoring 22 points and dishing out 10 assists.
"I thought Casper was really a key," Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson said after the game. "I'm really proud. I thought our guys really reached back and had a lot of energy today."
Carolina had energy too, it just didn't translate to success on the defensive end.
"I was disappointed in our defense," Williams said. "We've been living off it, and we just didn't have it mentally today."
Carolina escaped because it turned in its best offensive game of the season.
"I was pleased with our poise and toughness on the offensive end," Williams said. "We made shots.
"You stop somebody's run by making shots."
In the first half, Carolina's bench provided more than half of the scoring and the majority of it came from the hot hand of McDonald.
McDonald hit a career-high five 3-pointers in the first half to set the tone.
"I was knocking down shots, and I guess (my teammates) realized the next shot was going in so they looked for me," McDonald said. "I'm more confident in my shot, and I'm ready to shoot."
With Long Beach State doubling Tyler Zeller - holding him to 10 points on the night - Carolina had to look to other shooters if it wanted to win.
Harrison Barnes took that as a personal challenge despite recent struggles.
"Yeah, the rims are still a little tight around here," Barnes said tongue-in-cheek. "But you have a 50-50 chance every time you shoot, so I just need to keep shooting."
Barnes' commitment to being the scorer that Carolina thought they had when they brought him to campus will prove to be worthwhile as the season progresses.
Barnes is getting many good looks and simply missing some of them. His 19 points against the 49ers easily could have been 25.
But they weren't, and Carolina allowed a Long Beach State team that's short on size but long on heart to come to Chapel Hill and almost steal a win.
Long Beach State whittled a 14-point halftime deficit down to three with a little more than five minutes to play, and you could see their confidence growing.
You could feel the momentum shifting.
The 49ers believed they had a chance to beat the Tar Heels, something that seemed nearly impossible when you looked at the match-ups on paper before the game.
T.J. Robinson, listed a 6-8, was the tallest player Long Beach State rolled out all night.
Carolina, on the other hand, had four guys listed at 6-8 or taller.
How Robinson, Tristan Wilson and Eugene Phelps could control Carolina's big three of Zeller, John Henson and Justin Knox remains a mystery.
Carolina absorbed a quiet night from Zeller and Henson behind Barnes and McDonald, but Larry Drew II quietly played some of his best ball of the year.
The 13 points - 11 in the second half - were nice, but it was Drew's ability to make good decisions with the ball that made the difference.
On the season, Drew's assist-to-turnover ration is 1.9-to-1.
Against Long Beach State, it was 4-to-1.
Barnes said it still comes back to defense, though.
"As we play better competition, we will need to play better on the defensive end," Barnes said. "Good teams will capitalize on our defensive mistakes."
The adjustment for Carolina is simple because it's all mental.
This is a young team that experienced a little success, experienced a great win against a good Kentucky team, and perhaps they got a little complacent.
Perhaps they felt that their talent would carry them against an inferior Long Beach State team and they didn't need to bring the same level of intensity and focus.
Williams can only hope that his young team learned that lesson the easy way Friday night.
Carolina can't afford to take nights off. Against anybody.
Experienced teams fall into the trap of mentally taking a night off and relaxing against a team that everybody expects them to beat.
But then an experienced team fixes it. They realize the dangers of taking games for granted.
Carolina? We'll see what tonight was.
It could be a good learning experience and a key step in the maturation of a team, or it could be the downfall of a season.
When the rims get a little tight, like Barnes said, teams need to have something to fall back on.
Talent and quality shooting got Carolina by the 49ers.
If the Tar Heels fail to bring tenacity and urgency to the arena against an ACC opponent, they will have no shot.