Ed Davis (22 points, six rebounds) and Larry Drew (18 points, six assists) both posted career-highs in points in leading UNC to its fourth-consecutive win in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The Tar Heels relied on an all-freshmen scoring spurt of 11-2 to break open a 19-19 contest midway through the first half. UNC took a 50-34 margin into halftime, and Marcus Ginyard (nine points, seven assists) drilled a 3-pointer out of the gates to increase that lead to 19 points.
The Spartans methodically worked on that deficit for the remainder of the half, ultimately cutting it to six points with 1:52 left to play. But Tom Izzo’s club would not get any closer, missing five of its final six field goal attempts.
Deon Thompson added 14 points, four rebounds and five turnovers for North Carolina, while Raymar Morgan (18 points) and Kalin Lucas (15 points) led Michigan State.
UNC shot 57.9 percent (35-of-57) from the floor, compared with the Spartans’ 43.0 percent shooting display (34-of-79). Both teams pulled down 39 rebounds, although MSU grabbed 19 offensive boards.
The Tar Heels have now won 34 straight home games against non-conference opponents.
INSIDE THE GAME
Drew vs. Lucas
Don’t let the statistics fool you.
Michigan State point guard Kalin Lucas’ final line of 15 points, four assists and two steals is comparable to Larry Drew’s 18 points and six assists. But the difference was glaring through the first 26 minutes of play.
While Lucas managed just three points on 2-of-11 shooting to go along with one assist in an erratic display of forced shots and vanishing tricks, Drew (6-of-7) was calm and collected, efficiently directing Roy Williams’ offense and patiently waiting for scoring opportunities to emerge. If someone had to blindly guess, that person would assuredly assume that Drew was the seasoned veteran, not the other way around.
"I was just playing my game - I just went out there, tried not to think about it much and play the way I know I can play and things worked out for us...,” Drew told reporters as he sat in the UNC locker room comparing Lucas’ stat line to his own. “Probably just proving to myself - I can say I'm here for a reason, but not really getting as many minutes and experience last year, I wanted to make this game a statement to myself that, 'Ok, you're among the top point guards in the country. You can do this.'”
After Sunday’s impressive 12-point, 10-assist effort that translated into a 17-1 assist-to-error grade by the UNC coaching staff, the preseason concerns about instability at the point are slowly fading away.
“The last two games that’s 16-4 assist-[turnover ratio],” Williams said. “We need him to have that… I really think that he is coming along and doing big things for us. We need him to be a big-time player if we want to be a big-time team.”
It’s important to note that the Tar Heels threw a triumvirate of defenders at Lucas in Drew, Dexter Strickland and Marcus Ginyard, as well as pointing out that the Spartan junior found his game in scoring eight points over the final eight minutes of play to rally his troops.
But that was expected. Drew being the most serviceable point guard on this night was not.
“This game, I'm going to try and feed off it for the next game,” Drew said. “This was one of three games I marked on my calendar in making sure I tried to lead my team to a win."
Just a hunch, but it’s probably a safe bet that Saturday’s matchup with John Wall is No. 2 on Drew’s list of circled games.
Keeping the Pedal Down
The Tar Heels should be commended for withstanding Michigan State’s late rally, but the same could be said for both the Ohio State and Nevada victories. With three late-game collapses narrowly avoided, we’re quickly reaching the threshold of when that praise turns into concern.
"It always seems like we'll have a team and they'll make a rally - it's just something we're going to have to work on, not to let them rally back,” Drew said. “Attack them to close the game out. It's another learning experience for us and we're just going to get better from this."
All good teams – regardless of sport – make late charges to work their way back into ball games in which they are trailing. Just call it competitive spirit. But to simply write off the significant spurts in that regard is to take the spotlight off the Tar Heels’ struggles to maintain their edge in the final stanza.
“In the second half, I don’t think we were as attentive to detail and we lost our concentration a little bit,” Williams said.
But the Tar Heels didn’t completely cave, which is the most important detail. Will Graves has battled weight and back issues while residing in his head coach’s doghouse this season, but the junior wing came up big with two tip-outs on free throw misses in the closing minutes to give his team the ball with a fresh shot clock.
And after missing four free throws in the final 49 seconds against Ohio State, Drew calmly knocked down five of six attempts from the charity stripe in the final 53 seconds against Michigan State.
Experience builds the resume in preventing late-game collapses, while also proving time and time again that regardless of how it may seem at certain junctures, every college basketball game is indeed 40 minutes long.
Defense Equals Wins
Much of the hoopla emerging from North Carolina’s victory will center on the Heels’ third-straight offensive highlight reel against the Spartans, but the 2009-10 squad is not going to shoot 57.9 percent – or anything close to it – on a night-in, night-out basis against high-end competition. There is just not enough firepower currently in this program for that level of production.
But what this group of Tar Heels can replicate from Tuesday’s win is its defensive effort and intensity. North Carolina hoisted 22 fewer shots than Michigan State, but only ended with one less field goal to its credit.
The Spartans managed just 38.9 percent shooting (14-of-36) in the first half, and the Tar Heels’ ability to get pressure on the perimeter during their opponent’s second-half charge – MSU missed 11 of its final 12 3-pointers (hitting just 2-of-20 overall) – prevented a potential outside barrage from narrowing the deficit even more.
“I think we did a better job tonight of imposing our will defensively,” Ginyard said. “But there were some times when we let them get to the basket too easily… Overall, I think that we did see some good things out there defensively.”