SAN DIEGO -- A year ago, when North Carolina wing Harrison Barnes scored his first two points in his first college game, he was nervous. He couldn’t breathe. He had cotton mouth, he said.
That’s why the first points of his sophomore season Friday night, a jumper just 72 seconds into his top-ranked team’s 67-55 victory over Michigan State in the Carrier Classic, showed just how far he had come.
Because even with all the pomp and circumstance and distractions around him -- playing on the landing deck of an aircraft carrier; in slick, cold, breezy conditions; in front of President Barack Obama and thousands of servicemen and women on Veteran’s day -- he simply exhaled.
And then immediately buried another jumper.
“It’s been such a journey for me,’’ the preseason All-American said after leading all scorers with 17 points, plus five rebounds. “Starting off my freshman year, there were a lot of expectations, a lot of hype, and not playing to that caliber. Now coming in, and playing probably our biggest game of the year, on this stage and in this setting, coming out to perform, it’s a great feeling.”
It wasn’t how much Barnes scored (5-for-11, 2-for-5 on 3-pointers), as much as how he scored, that stood out.
His first two field goals got the Tar Heels off to an early 6-0 lead. Then, after they fell behind by as many as seven points in the first half (thanks to terrible rebounding), caught up and took as much as a 20-point lead in the second half (thanks to good transition offense and solid defense), and allowed the Spartans to make it somewhat interesting late -- Barnes came up big, again.
After MSU reeled off 10 consecutive points, cutting UNC’s advantage to 59-49, Barnes took an assist from Dexter Strickland and buried a 3-pointer to give his team a much-needed cushion.
No, it wasn’t as dramatic as one of those six game-winning or go-ahead shots he hit in the latter part of last season, when his confidence finally took hold.
But it was a shot the Tar Heels needed to make sure he wouldn’t have to make a down-to-the-wire buzzer beater Friday, like last season.
“He made two big 3s,” coach Roy Williams said. “One of ‘em -- I never felt like we had lost control of the game, I was mad about the way were were playing. But then we took a couple of bad shots, and all of a sudden John [Henson] set a good screen and Harrison had a wide-open 3 and Harrison stepped up and knocked it in.”
As pleased as he was with his performance and aplomb -- light years from this time a year ago -- Barnes said it was the events of the past three days (touring the carrier, meeting the president, learning about how so many sailors live) that will make this game memorable.
What did he take from it?
“One, not getting seasick, when I’m on a boat,’’ he said, laughing. “Two, just what the Navy does for us, what the military does for us, just goes so unappreciated. … I’m glad we won, but just showing our appreciation for them [was important]. These guys go out tomorrow, they deploy tomorrow, and I want to express my gratitude for them, and what they do.”
In turn, many in the open-air crowd expressed their gratitude for his growth -- cheering as he hit shots that might have left him cotton-mouthed only 12 months ago.
“His confidence has grown so much through the experience he had last year,’’ Strickland said. “And as you saw tonight, I think that’s going to help our team.”
Robbi Pickeral can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @bylinerp.