DAYTON, Ohio - A whole new Carolina cast looked nothing like defending champs the first time out in the NCAA tournament.
In the end, four freshmen made it turn out all right.
Murray State, a team with all of one NCAA victory in its history, took third-seeded North Carolina down to the closing seconds Friday night before the Tar Heels pulled out a 69-65 first-round victory.
Underscoring how much North Carolina (23-7) has changed in a year: Four freshmen scored the Tar Heels’ final 29 points. Tyler Hansbrough led the way with 24 overall, his 14th 20-point game — a Carolina freshman record.
“If he was any better looking, I’d want to kiss him after every game,” coach Roy Williams said. “I’ve never seen a freshman more focused.”
It wasn’t secure until Marcus Ginyard — yes, another freshman — made two free throws with 16.5 seconds left for a 69-65 lead.
The Tar Heels play George Mason in the second round of the Washington Regional.
Fourteenth-seeded Murray State (24-7) was trying to become the first team in 10 years to knock out a defending champion in the first round. The last champ to make such an early exit was UCLA, which was seeded fourth when it lost to Princeton 43-41 in 1996.
North Carolina isn’t a typical defending champion. The Tar Heels lost their top seven scorers from the squad that beat Illinois for the title, an unusually high turnover that left the roster stripped of tournament experience.
“They looked scared,” said senior David Noel, the only Tar Heel with appreciable NCAA experience. “That’s what you expect.
“At the same time, our freshmen stepped up big in the final 4 minutes. I kind of pulled them together and said, ’This is it, the last 4 minutes. We haven’t played well the whole game but we have to now.”’
Heading into the first round, Williams fretted that his team would have that wide-eyed look when it took the floor. He was right. The Tar Heels trailed 31-30 at halftime and never led by more than five in the second half.
“I feel very fortunate, to say the least,” Williams said. “A first-round game is always difficult, particularly if you’ve got a team that hasn’t been through it because they don’t know what it’s like.”
Murray State’s horrible history at tournament time made it an unlikely candidate to stay close. The Ohio Valley champions are 1-12 in NCAA play, and haven’t won a game since their 1988 upset of North Carolina State.
More daunting, their conference has lost 17 straight games in the tournament.
Trey Pearson led Murray State with 18 points, but missed a critical 3-point attempt with 20 seconds left. Carolina got the rebound and Ginyard was fouled, going to the line for his clinching free throws.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
Danny Green had 15 points for Carolina, Bobby Frasor added nine and Ginyard scored four, rounding out the freshman quartet.
Williams’ Kansas and Carolina teams now have won at least one game in the last 17 NCAA tournaments, matching Carolina’s Dean Smith for the record. This one was played in an arena where he suffered one of his most crushing NCAA tournament losses.
Williams and top-seeded Kansas was beaten by a Texas-El Paso 66-60 in the second round in 1992, when many thought the Jayhawks could win a national title.
The four freshmen saved him from another such setback on Friday.
Green’s bank shot put Carolina up 62-57 with 5:22 left, but Murray State tied it at 65 on Darnell Hopkins’ 17-foot jumper with 1:18 to go. That shot set it on course to be decided in the closing seconds.
Hansbrough’s turnaround hook put Carolina ahead to stay with 43 seconds left and showed he was fearless with everything on the line.
“We were running a little freelance offense,” Hansbrough said. “I posted low and my teammates got the ball to me and I was able to convert.”
CBT: Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski made it official that he'll be coaching Team USA at the 2016 Rio Olympics, and he'll also be with Duke at least that long, too.
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