The new-look North Carolina Tar Heels resembled nothing like last year's unit, and led by their exciting trio of freshmen, a suffocating man-to-man defense, and a juice injection of enthusiasm that was painfully absent last winter, UNC routed visiting Penn State, 85-55, before a crowd of 16,282 at the Dean E. Smith Center.
Although the game was in Carolina's hands the entire distance, Penn State did make a run, cutting the deficit to 71-53 with 5:49 left in the game, prompting Tar Heels coach Matt Doherty to call timeout. But his peach-fuzz-laden troops responded with an impressive 14-0 run to seal the deal, and start the 2002-03 season in much grander fashion than the home loss to Hampton that began last season's 8-20 disaster.
"I thought our kids played extremely hard," Doherty said. "Everyone who played, I thought contributed. Our defense was fabulous. I was excited to see that we held them to under 30 percent from the field, (and) 13 percent from the 3-point line."
The Tar Heels, which started three freshmen for the first time in the fabled program's history, jumped out to a quick 6-0 lead on a layup by freshman Sean May off a feed from sophomore Jackie Manuel, a dunk by freshman Rashad McCants after a steal, and another jam by McCants after a sweet feed from sophomore Jawad Williams. And just one minute into the game, it was clear that things were different in Chapel Hill.
"We came out ready to play," Manuel said. "We were really focused, and knew if we dug down and played D, and I think everybody on the team likes to play defense. And that's what got us going tonight."
After Penn State cut the margin to 8-6, Carolina began to pull away.
McCants, who finished with a UNC freshman-first-game record 28 points, nailed consecutive 3-pointers. May knocked down a turnaround jumper off the right block. Freshman point guard Raymond Felton grabbed a defensive rebound and raced full court and converted a nifty layup. Manuel (16 points, six rebounds) knocked down a pair of free throws. A Felton 3-pointer followed a McCants free throw. May rammed home a dish from Felton, and Manuel sank two more freebies before Nittany Lions coach Jerry Dunn called a timeout with his team trailing 28-8 with 11:59 left before intermission, and the outcome was essentially no longer in doubt.
The Tar Heels opened up leads of 32-10, 40-17, and 49-21 (with 3:17 left in the half) before PSU cut into the margin thanks to a quick 8-3 run. But Carolina still led at the half, 54-29.
"It was unbelievable," said May, who finished with 17 points and 10 rebounds. "The energy in the Smith Center was great. Rashad started it off. He got out there, and he's our man in the huddle and gets us ready to go. I've never seen Rashad come out like that and it was an unbelievable feeling.
"The excitement is back in Carolina Basketball," May added. "And it's gonna continue as long as we keep working hard and listen to coach D."
Comparisons to last year's squad might as well cease because the teams simply don't compute.
"Well, this is a very different team," said senior Will Johnson. "We are faster and are playing with a lot of confidence. They (freshmen) can really play. Rashad showed why he was a McDonald's All-American. These guys can play and I think we are a better team."
The Tar Heels were far more active in every facet of the game tonight. Their man-to-man defense extended well out onto the perimeter. Their hands were very active – deflecting passes and keeping the ball alive on the glass – and they passionately crashed the boards to the tune of a 46-35 advantage.
"We really focus on playing excellent defense and hitting the boards hard," said Williams, who had seven points and nine rebounds. "We understand that if you play great defense and rebound well you will win most of your games. And that's what we did tonight."
And for all their youth, brashness, flare, and exuberance, the Heels played unselfishly, and don't plan on changing any time soon.
"We are such an unselfish team," May said. "Just because we are young doesn't mean we don't like being unselfish. We know that's part of how you win. So, as long as we want to win, and we do, we will continue to be unselfish. It's all about getting the wins."
Felton tallied nine points but had 10 assists (a school record for a freshman's first game) and picked up four rebounds in his much-anticipated debut.
"I maybe can score 20 or 30 points every night, but I don't come out to do that," Felton said. "I'm just trying to come out and win. And if I have to pass the ball and have 10 assists, hey, whatever, as long as we get that W. I will score if I have to."
As impressive as the Heels were as a whole, McCants stood out most. He rebounded (seven boards), passed (three assists), played defense (two steals), was efficient (11-14 from the field), and was as advertised regarding intensity, flash, communication on the floor, and played like this wasn't his first game in Carolina blue.
"He was great," Felton said about McCants. "Rashad is Rashad. He did everything I know he can do. He drives with strength and can score. He can shoot the 3-point shot. He plays great defense. He's just a great player."
"My role was to help lead the team to a win," McCants said. "I do a little bit of everything. But, it's really not about me, it's about the team. Everybody did their part and we were able to get a good win tonight."
The Heels are far from being great as a unit, but they have begun to erase the memories of last year and can feel they are a dangerous club.
"I'm ready," Felton said. "A lot of people are saying we are going to have a bad season, I don't think we are going to have a bad season. I'm not saying we are going to come in and beat everybody, and we are going to win the NCAA and ACC. We are going to come out and try to win every night and I think we'll do a lot of that."
And it looks like Carolina fans will have a lot more to cheer about this year, as the rebirth of this program appears to be in progress.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.