Commentary

Here's to a special night on the ship

North Carolina beats Michigan State in Carrier Classic, but result merely a footnote

Originally Published: November 11, 2011
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

SAN DIEGO -- The jersey names all read USA, a perfectly anonymous tribute in a basketball game in which the game itself was merely a footnote to the pomp.

For the record, North Carolina won here aboard the USS Carl Vinson, as the No. 1 Tar Heels topped a work-in-progress Michigan State team 67-55 in the inaugural Carrier Classic on Friday night.

Somewhere down the road, maybe in early March, that bit of information might be important.

On 11-11-11, it wasn't.

[+] EnlargeBarack Obama
Christopher Hanewinckel/US PresswireThe appearance of the president and the first lady only added to the grandeur of the occassion.

In a season ripe with promise, and as a sport ready to take center stage in the absence of the NBA, college basketball tipped off 2011-12 with an event that won't soon be forgotten.

What sounded like a pipe dream -- or maybe more accurately, a crazy man's vision -- came to fruition in real time: a basketball game played beneath the hulking island tower of the USS Carl Vinson with a full moon looming in the distance; stands filled with sailors, Marines, airmen and soldiers; and the "First Fan" and his wife sitting at midcourt.

"We want to make sure you understand how much we appreciate what you do, not just on Veterans Day, but every day of the year," President Barack Obama said before the game.

This game was a daylong tribute to all of that.

Fans and military arrived hours before tip, some ascending to the flight deck via the lift used to put the planes in place. Tar Heel blue and Spartan green mixed among the dress uniforms of the Navy officers and the crackerjacks of the enlisted men. High-fives were exchanged and salutes offered.

Milling around the vast space that is the carrier's flight deck, fans and military personnel alike enjoyed music from an all-sailor rock band -- the wonderfully, appropriately named Destroyers -- snapped pictures, and looked in wonder at the court assembled where planes are supposed to sit.

About an hour before tip, Air Force One was spotted making its approach to its on-base landing. After speaking to both teams, the Obamas came out for the national anthem.

Just as B. Taylor finished the final note of "the brave" in the national anthem, two fighter jets executed an exquisitely timed flyover, and then Obama addressed the crowd as the Heels and Spartans listened, both teams wearing camouflage-themed uniforms.

It was a spectacle, but a spectacle in the best sense of the word.

"I enjoyed every possible thing about it," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "Hopefully I'll be coaching another 10 or 15 years, but I think it's going to be hard to top this."

That the game didn't live up to the pregame is a forgivable offense.

It would have been hard to match in the best of circumstances, and in the first game of the season for both teams, no one expected this to be that sort of game.

"It wasn't a pretty game to watch, but we knew that," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "I'm not sure anyone thought it was going to be pretty."

North Carolina is too good, Michigan State too raw and, truthfully, the surroundings too overwhelming.

[+] EnlargeKendall Marshall
Harry How/Getty ImagesAs expected, it wasn't always pretty on the court. But everything else sure was.

The game began in bright sunlight and finished in the dark, a cool wind blew and then calmed, and the players had to adjust to shooting in the ultimate depth-perception nightmare -- floating baskets with the sky as a backdrop.

Even more than the court configurations, it was the hoopla that took some adjusting to. The players were on the court for all of it, their traditional pregame layup lines interrupted for the Obamas' arrival.

Harrison Barnes admitted it took a good 10 minutes of game time before he stopped observing and started playing.

Even then, there was a break from normalcy -- at the first media timeout, the ship held its daily retiring of the colors. The big-screen video board showed sailors bringing in the Vinson's flag as the band played "To the Colors."

"I was just sort of jogging, waving, 'Oh hey, hi, there's a sailor,'" Barnes said. "We're all just looking around, taking it easy, looking around. I had to remind myself, 'OK, this is a game. I have to focus.' It was hard."

North Carolina was able to focus, or at least refocus, which is what the Heels ought to remember after they come out of the stupor of the show.

UNC trailed Michigan State 15-8 early, hardly an insurmountable lead. Except with the way the Spartans were rebounding and the way the Tar Heels weren't, the action looked more lopsided than the score. MSU held a dominating 17-4 rebounding edge at one point, 8-1 on the offensive glass.

The Heels never entirely righted those numbers -- State won the boards 49-34 -- which is partially why Williams gave his team only a C for the game.

But North Carolina did start to dictate the game, forcing turnovers -- 15 in all -- and getting out in its beloved transition game to score 13 easy points. The seven-point hole eventually became a 20-point lead as the Heels ultimately overwhelmed the Spartans with skill and numbers.

"I liked my team's focus," Williams said. "It was a difficult environment; there's no question about that."

It was equally tricky, of course, for the Spartans. Michigan State is a young team in age and game experience, and the bright lights and surreal atmosphere surely were hard for those players to process, too.

And while the Spartans didn't leave the deck with a win, they left with plenty to build on. A year ago, Michigan State was a picture of dysfunction, a team that started No. 2 in the country and stumbled out of the polls and out of the NCAA tournament in the first round.

A couple of players transferred and Kalin Lucas graduated, leaving Izzo with a new group to mold. The mold still hasn't taken shape altogether, but there were good signs.

That 20-point deficit was cut in half at one point, and the Spartans' rebounding edge resembled that of vintage Izzo teams, unlike the imposter of a year ago.

[+] EnlargeHarrison Barnes
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesOn this special night, there were no names on the jerseys.

"We've got nothing to hang our heads about," senior forward Draymond Green said. "We stood up to the No. 1 team in the nation. We're going to be fine. We got back to the old Michigan State ways, playing defense and rebounding. They're the better team than us right now, but if we meet again, you don't know. I love my guys. I'll go to war with these guys any day."

The analogy -- to go to war -- of course struck an especially strong chord on this night, when men and women are preparing for deployments that will put them in the middle of a real war, one without a scoreboard or referee.

After the game ended, Green summoned the players from North Carolina onto the court. He already had suggested to his teammates that they give their one-time-only camouflage unis to the military men and women in attendance.

He suggested the Tar Heels do the same.

They agreed.

"I knew they were a class program like we were," Green said. "No one said anything like, 'No, we want to keep our jersey.' They just went and did it."

And so when the game ended, the players walked to midcourt for a quick picture. There was handshaking with the Obamas, and then, one by one, they peeled off their jerseys and handed them out.

In the crowd, a chant rang out.

"U-S-A, U-S-A."

Just like it said on the backs of the jerseys.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.

Dana O'Neil | email

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