Top-ranked Carolina defeated Michigan State 67-55 in the most unusual setting ever for a collegiate basketball game Friday night, but the Tar Heels had to overcome a trademark Spartan effort to earn the victory.
"We got off to a good start at 6-0 and then everybody thought it was going to be easy," Coach Roy Williams said. "They kicked us for a few minutes, and I really liked the way we responded at that time.
"It was an unusual environment," Williams said. "There is no question. I was not pleased at all with the work on the backboards."
UNC and Michigan State played on the flight deck of the USS aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, a ship that will soon be deployed to the war in Afghanistan, its third wartime deployment in the last three years.
The ship is docked in San Diego, Calif. A basketball court was built on the deck and surrounded by temporary stands. Many of the approximately 5,000 men and women who serve on the ship sat in those seats.
The game, which various officials have been trying stage for several years, was played to honor the U.S. Armed Forces on Veterans Day. The game, which began in the afternoon in California, proved to be a great success for the teams and the spectators. Among those watching were President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.
"Having the president was pretty humbling," said UNC sophomore forward Harrison Barnes, who scored a team-high 17 points. "It wasn't so much about us as about him. It was a great experience."
There were wounded veterans from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan sitting along courtside. The Tar Heels gave those men their jerseys afterward.
"It was great," Barnes said. "To see the excitement on those guys' faces, for all the things they do for us. They literally give part of themselves just so we can live our everyday lives. It was gratifying to see they got so much enjoyment out of our jerseys."
As for the game, the Spartans have a young team compared to the experienced Tar Heels, but youth did not deter from the effort for which Coach Tom Izzo's teams have become known. Michigan State played far more physically than Carolina did, and as a result out-rebounded UNC 42-31.
Second-chance points kept the Spartans in the game in the first half and helped to slice an eventual UNC 20-point second-half lead.
Junior forward John Henson shone the brightest of the Tar Heels. He scored 12 points on 6-of-12 shooting. His points included a couple of nifty baseline jump shots. He made his biggest impact with his nine blocked shots and team-high seven rebounds.
The Tar Heels eventually played strong team defense and hit high gear with its fast break, showing the quick-scoring ability that this team possesses.
UNC shot 47 percent from the field compared to 30.6 percent for the Spartans.
"We got some turnovers," Williams said, "and they didn't shoot a good percentage. We shot a decent percentage. We missed our last two or three shots or we would have been over 50 percent. All in all, it's a win, which you love that. It's a win in this setting, which you love."
The game was ideal in many ways because the Tar Heels displayed the skills, experience and talent that have led to them being ranked No. 1.
Yet there were enough flaws that Williams can push the team when it eventually returns to practice. UNC flew back to the East Coast overnight, stopping in Asheville to play UNC Asheville at 4 p.m. on Sunday.
"I saw some things we can show them on tape and say we can't do that," Williams said. "I can also show them some tape of some good things we did."