College Basketball: UNC 86, Penn 71

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 15, 2008

By David Shaw
CHAPEL HILL ó North Carolina’s march toward Detroit and a berth in the Final Four began with a step in the right direction Saturday.
The top-ranked Tar Heels opened their men’s basketball season by tripping Penn 86-71 at the Dean Smith Center.
“It’s a first game,” coach Roy Williams said after UNC fended off the pesky Quakers (0-1). “We’re not gonna be perfect. We were a little tighter than we wanted to be.”
Playing without injured center Tyler Hansbrough and forward Marcus Ginyard, Carolina placed six scorers in double figures and received a double-double from freshman reserve Ed Davis (10 points, 14 rebounds). Another freshman, seven-footer Tyler Zeller, netted a team-high 18 points.
But the Tar Heels made only one field goal in the last eight minutes and needed to convert eight of 10 free throws down the stretch to prevail.
“Penn’s a good team. They came back like any good team would,” senior Danny Green said. “Teams in our league are going to do the same thing to us. It’s not OK, but it’s gonna happen.”
Carolina found itself nursing a 27-25 lead after Penn sophomore Tyler Bernardini (9-for-18 FGA, 26 points) beamed in a 3-ball from the left corner with 7:36 remaining in the first half.
“We had a stretch where we didn’t take care of the ball,” said UNC’s Deon Thompson. “We got sloppy on the offensive end. We had opportunities to blow it open, but we just got sloppy with our passing and let them stick around.”
Carolina cleaned itself up and raced to a 48-33 halftime lead, sparked by a sequence that included a jackhammer jam from Davis and Green’s 3-pointer from the Granville Towers.
The second half was played at a slower, less-rhythmic pace ó much to Penn’s liking. The Quakers came crawling back, using their disruptive, swarming zone to foil the Tar Heels on four straight possessions late in the game. When Bernardino and Jack Eggleston drained consecutive 3-pointers, the guests had trimmed a 20-point deficit to 76-66 with four minutes to play.
“Their style is tough to play against,” said Williams, now in his sixth year as UNC coach. “Bernardino would be all-world if he only played against us.”
Unable to put the Quakers to sleep, Carolina did the next best thing. It drove the lane and went to the foul line. Ty Lawson went 6-for-6 in the last 7:13 and Zeller ó a promising prospect from Indiana ó hit seven of eight and threw in a game-clinching, industrial-strength dunk for good measure.
On the down side, Carolina shot only 33 percent from the field in the second half and junior Wayne Ellington had a miserable shooting percentage.
“Five-for-15?” Williams told the media afterward. “Ray Charles could see that’s not very good.”
Ellington nonetheless contributed 13 points, five assists and two steals. “My shot wasn’t falling so I tried to work on other things,” he explained. “Getting in the passing lanes, making some steals, you know ó something else.”
Most importantly, it was enough to get UNC pointed toward Motown.

NOTES: Carolina has won 76 of its last 78 home openers. … Zeller’s most inspiring play came early in the second half, when he took a bounce pass in the lane from Green and stuffed over two defenders. … Carolina hosts Kentucky on Tuesday (9 p.m./ESPN). Hansbrough, who has a stress reaction ó not a fracture ó in his right shin, didn’t practice last week and is a likely scratch. … Ginyard has a stress fracture in his left foot and won’t play until December.