The fourth-ranked Tar Heels jumped out to a quick 11-4 lead behind six of Thompson’s early points, but the Golden Panthers kept the ball game surprisingly competitive throughout. North Carolina entered halftime with a 46-30 margin before opening up its largest lead of the game at 61-35 with 13:29 left in regulation.
Ed Davis posted a double-double with 13 points and 11 rebounds and blocked four shots for good measure. Marcus Ginyard (12 points, four rebounds, three assists) and Tyler Zeller (12 points, four rebounds) also reached double figures in scoring.
The Tar Heels shot 55.7 percent (34-of-61) from the floor, while holding Florida International to 36.8 percent (25-of-68).
Marvin Roberts (18 points, four steals) and Antonie Watson (16 points, six assists) led the Golden Panthers in Thomas’ college debut.
INSIDE THE GAME
It’s no secret that as Larry Drew goes this season, so will the Tar Heels. The surrounding cast may resemble a Chevrolet Corvette ZR1, but if the available engine operates as a mere four cylinder, the shiny coat and fancy upgrades are all for naught.
After reported struggles in North Carolina’s secret scrimmage against Vanderbilt last week, Drew took the official reins to Roy Williams’ up-tempo offense on Monday and easily passed the test laid out before him.
The sophomore point guard scored seven points (3-of-6 shooting, 1-of-3 on 3-pointers), dished out six assists against just two turnovers, grabbed two rebounds and added a steal to his stat line.
Senior guard Marcus Ginyard termed Drew’s 21 minutes of action as a “very solid” effort.
“These performances are going to be crucial for him and for this team,” Ginyard said. “There’s no question with him leading the pack at point guard, we’re going to rely on him a lot to be making those good plays, so I thought he had a great game tonight and I’m hoping to see more of that from him.”
There’s undoubtedly plenty of room for improvement for Drew, but in his first starring role as North Carolina’s lead point guard, the Encino, Calif. native proved that he has the potential to emerge as a legitimate replacement for Ty Lawson by the end of the season.
“I think I can push the ball a little faster and a little more frequently,” Drew said. “But I felt like I was in control out there tonight and I did basically everything that I wanted to do.”
A Dozen (or Two) Turnovers
It only took Roy Williams six seconds into his postgame press conference to bring up his squad’s all-too-frequent charity work of handing the ball over to Florida International.
“Needless to say, we don’t like 26 turnovers,” Williams said. “I even chewed the last five guys out because we had four turnovers in the last two minutes of the game. I told them they work their tail off in practice – if you want to get into the game, don’t turn the dadgum ball over when I put you in there.”
The 26 turnovers rank as eighth-worst in school history (tying two contests against Duke and one against Loyola Marymount in the late-80s). It’s the most turnovers UNC has committed since coughing the ball up 29 times against Miami on Dec. 4, 2000 and the second-most since turning it over 28 times against Kentucky on Dec. 10, 1990.
Ten Tar Heels committed at least one turnover and nine committed two or more. Dexter Strickland led the charge with five turnovers (against one assist), while Ed Davis posted four of his own. To make matters worse, North Carolina only tallied 23 assists on the evening.
“We did have quite a bit of turnovers, but that’s just another thing of getting these young guys into it and older guys getting used to playing with each other,” Ginyard said. “I think that those [numbers] will come down a little bit, but we’ve just got to work a little bit better on taking care of the ball.”
Drew suggested that the bulk of the problems was due to the young players adjusting to the speed of the game, but that wouldn’t seem to apply to the five returning players that played 20 minutes or more totaling 14 turnovers.
Panthers Offensive on the Glass
Florida International’s roster includes of four players standing shorter than 6-foot and only two players north of 6-foot-5 – forwards J.C. Otero (6-foot-7) and Nikola Gacesa (6-foot-9). But through 20 minutes of play, the Golden Panthers were dead even with the elongated Tar Heels on the boards, 20-20.
North Carolina responded in the second half by winning the rebounding battle, 24-9, but where Thomas’ squad did the most damage was on the offensive glass. Florida International outrebounded UNC on the offensive glass, 13-12, for the game.
“We’ve got to get the long rebounds for sure,” Thompson said. “I think that’s what hurt us so much – just the long rebounds. With this team, we have so much size that we’ve definitely got to try to dominate the boards.”
Offensive rebounds join steals (14-10, FIU) and loose balls in making up the all-important hustle category – an area that North Carolina clearly lost on Monday.
“One of the things that Coach [Williams] wasn’t too happy about was them coming up with so many loose balls,” Thompson said. “They definitely came up with more loose balls than us, so that kind of says a lot to Coach.”