Eight months after beating the Spartans to win the national championship, the 10th-ranked Tar Heels did it again to No. 9 Michigan State. This time, they got career-best scoring performances from sophomores Ed Davis and Larry Drew II in Tuesday night's 89-82 victory that could be key for a young team that's still taking shape after losing so much star power from last season.
Davis scored 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting for the Tar Heels (7-1), while Drew had 18 points and hit five free throws in the final minute to help the Tar Heels hold off a late rally by the Spartans (5-2). North Carolina, which shot 58 percent, led by as many as 19 points early in the second half to beat Michigan State for the second straight year in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
It was probably the best performance of the young season for a team that lost NBA first-round draft picks Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington from last season's champion.
"It's still early, early in the season," coach Roy Williams said. "We're not going to make too much of this game. It's one game. It's a big win. We're going to love it until midnight, then we'll start thinking about the next game we play."
The teams met twice last season at Detroit's Ford Field, with North Carolina winning by 35 points in the early season Challenge. Then came the 89-72 win in April for the program's fifth NCAA championship, a game in which North Carolina led by 24 points in the first half. It was a performance that put a damper on the Spartans' thrilling tournament run that had galvanized the economically battered state of Michigan.
Coach Tom Izzo had said he didn't plan to use last season as motivation, though some of his players admitted they were eager for another shot at the Tar Heels. And as if the Spartans needed any reminders of what happened in April, the blue-clad students near the home bench greeted them for pregame warmups with chants of "Banner! Banner!" while pointing to the one hanging in the Smith Center rafters to commemorate last season's title.
The Tar Heels pitched in, too. At one point, they had nearly duplicated the 55-34 title-game lead they carried into the locker room at halftime.
"It's getting pretty sickening," said Draymond Green, who had 13 points for Michigan State. "They're a top program in the nation, but so are we."
It was North Carolina's fifth straight win in the series, including a victory in the 2005 Final Four and the NCAA second round in 2007.
"I've said all along we're not where those guys are yet, and I think it's evident," Izzo said. "It's OK to lose to them, but it's the first time we've really competed in the last three games. So maybe that's a start in the right direction, but you've got to win games too. Our program's not where theirs is, but our program's not where there's moral victories for being close. Some guys have to step up. I was really disappointed in a couple of guys' performance."
The Spartans were 2 of 20 from 3-point range and 7 of 42 from outside the paint after shooting 56 percent overall and 47 percent from behind the arc in the previous three games.
Raymar Morgan scored 18 points to lead the Spartans, while Kalin Lucas added 15 points, including three baskets in the final two minutes as the Spartans got as close as six points.
The Tar Heels scored on their first five possessions, then got a run of nine straight points from freshmen to take a 30-21 lead on a driving basket from Dexter Strickland. A few minutes later, the Tar Heels -- doing their best impression of last season's high-scoring squad -- closed the half with a 10-2 run that ended with another impressive basket from Strickland.
This time, the freshman grabbed a loose rebound, raced up court and launched a pull-up 3-pointer over a backpedaling Korie Lucious just before the halftime horn. The ball swished cleanly through the net, sending the Tar Heels sprinting to the locker room with a 50-34 lead and a packed house screaming with delight.
"It was North Carolina basketball," Drew said. "I mean, we're all here for a reason. We're all good players and we know we can play. We just played with confidence tonight."
North Carolina shot 64 percent while scoring at least 50 points in the first half for the third straight time against the Spartans. Marcus Ginyard buried a 3-pointer on the first possession of the second half for North Carolina's biggest lead, 53-34.
That forced the Spartans back into a familiar role: trying to claw back against the Tar Heels in a game that had gotten away from them. This time, at least, the Spartans made it interesting, though the result was the same.
"It feels just as good as the first time," North Carolina senior Deon Thompson said. "There was no confetti falling from the sky, but it definitely felt good to win. This is something we needed."