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"We've grown up a lot since the first couple games of the year," first-year Trojans' coach Tim Floyd said. "I wasn't sure if we could handle the test tonight."
Floyd may now start to believe a little more in his team, which has won eight straight after dropping its first two games of the season to Oral Roberts and Cal State Northridge.
Lodrick Stewart was 7-of-12 from the field, including 4-of-5 from beyond the arc. But it was his final three-pointer with 2:40 to play that shut the door on any chances of a miraculous Carolina comeback.
"Athletically on the perimeter, they're about as a good as anybody," Roy Williams said. "We've got to do a better job on the defensive end of the floor."
In a classic "trap game," and one Williams wasn't taking lightly as evidenced by his decision to fly in on Sunday in an early attempt to adjust his team to the change in time zone and environment; UNC (6-2) committed 25 turnovers and then fell apart down the stretch.
For one of the few times this season, the Tar Heels' newcomers actually played like freshmen. And Reyshawn Terry's scoreless contribution was of little assistance as well.
"I thought we were focused when we got here, but they got some runs early in the game and we just couldn't seem to get into it," Terry said.
David Noel led all scorers with 19 points and Tyler Hansbrough chipped in 16. However, after putting on a show in the post for three-fourths of the game, Hansbrough failed to score after a dunk that pulled the Tar Heels within 54-51 with 8:39 to play.
The Trojans (8-2) would go on to outscore UNC 20-8 the rest of the way.
"They were just basically pushing our offense out to half court and that hurt us," Noel said. "We're used to being able to get the ball inside and get easy buckets. It definitely hurts our offense when we can't get it close in."
The Trojans rebounded from a 35-30 halftime deficit, to shoot 57 percent in the second half, including a sizzling 7-of-10 from three-point range. At one point, USC converted six straight from beyond the arc.
"We were very lucky to be up five at half," Williams said. "I didn't think we had played well in the first half. I thought they were the aggressors, and they continued that in the second half."
Inside Carolina may have been the only N.C.-based media outlet to cover the game, but Tar Heels fans were well-represented among the 5,921 in attendance.
Carolina brought a 3-3 all-time record into the historic Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena – where Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Wilt Chamberlain led the Lakers to an NBA title in 1971.
"That was back when this was a state-of-the-art arena," one veteran usher said.
But surprisingly UNC had never faced USC in the building.
And apparently, college basketball is not the talk of the town either these days.
The six o'clock sports report on the local CBS affiliate made no mention of the reigning NCAA champs being in town. But rather deferring to preliminary coverage of upcoming Rose Bowl, Kobe Bryant's dazzling performance the previous night at the Staples Center, Anaheim Ducks' hockey notes and an off-season trade involving the Angels' Steve Finley.
After the game, however, the Trojans' upset of UNC was the station's lead sports story.