The faces were different, and the venue had changed, but one thing remained constant in Tuesday’s national championship game rematch: North Carolina still had Michigan State’s number.
Just like last year, the Tar Heels got off to a fast start, scoring on each of their first five possessions.
Just like last year, UNC had at least 50 points and a double-digit lead at halftime.
And once again, No. 10 North Carolina (7-1) came away with an 89-82 victory in a very loud Smith Center, making it five in a row against the No. 9 Spartans (5-2).
This time, though, it wasn’t supposed to go down like that. The Spartans were the ones with the higher ranking and the three returning starters from the national title game.
“All the talk was about Michigan State and them coming back and trying to beat us the third time,” Marcus Ginyard said.
“But they’re coming on our home court, and we’re trying to protect our home court. And we were just as excited about this game as they were. A chance to put them away for the third time.”
That’s just what they did.
Once again, the charge was led in the post, where Ed Davis was nearly unstoppable. He shot 8-10 from the field and 6-8 from the free throw line to total a career-high 22 points. Deon Thompson added 14.
“Ed and Deon did a great job of working to get the ball tonight,” Ginyard said. “It’s something that we’ve been trying to get on them to work on. We’re looking for them inside, and we have faith in them that they can score inside.”
Unlike in April, MSU made this one a game in the last few minutes. After shooting nearly 64 percent from the field in the first half, UNC’s shooters cooled a bit.
The Tar Heels went almost 10 minutes with just two field goals in a stretch, and the Spartans pulled within six points five times with less than two minutes to play.
But each time, UNC had the answer. A two-handed slam by Davis, followed by seven free throws, kept the Spartans at bay. And even after two Tar Heels missed a pair, UNC came away with the rebound.
Larry Drew II made five of those free throws as part of his career high 18-point, 6-assist evening.
Not every Tar Heel had the experience of playing MSU twice last year — in fact, most didn’t. Even the youngest players got up to speed quickly, though.
At one point, tied at 21 in the first half, Williams went to a lineup with four freshmen. They rewarded him by going on a 9-0 run, including five points from Strickland.
“To me the key to the first half was that everybody who came in gave us something positive,” UNC coach Roy Williams said.
Strickland contributed nine points, eight in the first half, in the best game of his young career. He also had three assists and no turnovers in 14 minutes.
“I felt real confident,” Strickland said. “It was all focus. I felt real confident about driving the ball, shooting the ball. The confidence is going to keep getting better each game. I’ve just got to keep that mental focus.”
North Carolina will walk away from Tuesday night with a resume-building win. The Spartans, though, missed their chance at revenge, succumbing once again to UNC.
Thompson, who has made a habit out of defeating MSU since his freshman year, said his team was fired up to keep the streak alive.
“I think when they see that Carolina blue they get a little shaky,” he said.
Contact the Sports Editor at sports@.unc.edu
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