CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Northern Iowa players insist they were confident in their chances to come in and steal a win against defending national champion North Carolina in Friday's season opener.
While that didn't happen, it's hard to think the short-handed Panthers were too discouraged by the final.
Returning to a place where they suffered the worst loss of the Ben Jacobson era a season ago, the Panthers challenged No. 9 North Carolina for most of the first half before the Tar Heels pulled away for an 86-69 win.
After falling in a 15-point hole, the Panthers used a hot outside shooting streak to cut into the lead late in the first half. And following 3-pointers on three straight possessions — two by Isaiah Brown, one by Spencer Haldeman — UNI was within 37-31.
But Luke Maye, who finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds on 11-of-16 shooting, turned the momentum back the Tar Heels' way for good when he connected on a jumper on the ensuing possession.
The basket began a 13-0 Tar Heel run that extended into the second half.
"There were some positives in the first 15 minutes, and there were some things we worked on a lot that we didn't take care of in that first 15 minutes that would have put us in a nice position going into the half," Jacobson said.
The highlights he mentioned was ball distribution and strong outside shooting. The Panthers had 15 assists on 23 made field goals and hit 13-of-28 from three-point range.
Haldeman had a team-high 15 points while Brown added a career-best 13.
The biggest downside according to Jacobson came in transition defense and on the glass, where the Tar Heels scored 13 points off of nine offensive rebounds.
The final score looks particularly encouraging compared to UNI's visit to Chapel Hill last December, which resulted in an 85-42 drubbing.
But for the numerous players still around from the Panther's 2015 upset of UNC, improvements don't mean much if they don't result in a win.
"(We were) better than last year but still not good enough," said Klint Carlson, who finished with eight points and five rebounds. "We obviously came in here expecting to win and wanting to win."