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The Daily Tar Heel

Same old song

The Tar Heels broke out throwback uniforms to honor the 1957 national championship team. DTH/Phong Dinh
The Tar Heels broke out throwback uniforms to honor the 1957 national championship team. DTH/Phong Dinh

North Carolina’s title defense didn’t begin nearly as smoothly as its last season ended.

But sans Tyler Hansbrough and plenty of the other familiar faces from 2008, UNC showed it still has plenty of offensive firepower in its 88-72 win against Florida International.

“I thought Deon (Thompson), Ed (Davis), Marcus (Ginyard), Tyler (Zeller) — the experienced players — really did some nice things,” coach Roy Williams said. “I thought we were active. We were trying hard. We weren’t very sharp, but that’s what you should expect this time of year.”

Thompson paced No. 6 UNC offensively with 20 points, and Davis grabbed 11 rebounds and blocked four shots to lead UNC (1-0) defensively.

As expected, a young Tar Heel squad committed plenty of turnovers in its first regular season game. UNC gave the ball away 26 times, and a flurry of turnovers near the end of the second half allowed the Golden Panthers (0-1) to cut the deficit to less than 20.

“We did have quite a bit of turnovers, but that’s just another thing of getting these young guys into it and the older guys getting used to playing with each other and things like that,” Ginyard said.

As for defense, it didn’t take long for UNC to figure out how opposing teams would try to attack its plethora of big men.

FIU consistently spread the Tar Heels out, forcing big men such as Zeller and Thompson to try playing defense from all the way out on the 3-point line.

Thompson said he joked with FIU coach Isiah Thomas after the game about the strategy.

“I asked why he tried to spread the floor and drive our big guys, and he just started laughing and said, ‘That’s all I can do.’” Thompson said. “And that’s a pretty good coaching decision when you’ve got so many big guys on the floor.”

Thomas didn’t have many other options. The tallest players on FIU’s roster measure 6-foot-9, in comparison to UNC, which has five players 6-foot-10 or taller.

And despite being spread out, UNC still managed eight blocks and altered almost every shot taken in the paint.

“We’re a great shot-blocking team, definitely with Deon and Ed,” Zeller said. “If a team drives in there, they’ve definitely got to change their shot, be pretty crafty to make shots in there.”

Williams also got his first look at his freshmen in a regular season game. While all five saw action, none lit up the scoreboard.

John Henson was the leading freshman scorer with only four points. Dexter Strick-land, who backs up sophomore Larry Drew II at the point, struggled with turnovers.

Strickland turned the ball over five times, the most of any UNC player. After the game, he downplayed nerves as the reason for his mistakes.

“I got the butterflies out early,” Strickland said. “It wasn’t that I was nervous. I just made mental mistakes.”

He wasn’t the only one.

Plenty of UNC players admitted to mental lapses afterward and said they still aren’t sure what their teammates are thinking sometimes offensively.

“There’s really no telling when we get to that point when we’re really meshing together out there on the court and really starting to get a feel for each other,” Ginyard said.

“There’s no question we’re working toward that right now. These young guys are really just doing the best they can.”

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