Many observers believed that on Thursday night North Carolina would experience its first defeat since last spring’s ACC Tournament, but the Tar Heels gutted out an ugly win over top-25 Ohio State in New York.

As part of the 2k Sports Classic, the Heels will play tonight in the final versus Syracuse, which routed California in a game that was expected to be much more competitive.

Against the Buckeyes, Carolina sputtered throughout the game offensively and, in a stark contrast to the Lawson/Hansbrough era, relied on its defense to keep OSU in check. The formula worked and at one point led to a 19-point lead in the second half, but the Heels missed free throws and committed costly turnovers to allow Ohio State which had contributed to its own problems by missing some open shots to claw its way back in.

The Heels shot a respectable 49 percent from the field and nailed 10-for-24 on three attempts, as one of the season’s surprises has been Carolina’s ability to bury long jump shots. And yet, the turnovers again plagued the team, as point guards Larry Drew and Dexter Strickland contributed six of the team’s 19 errors.

Carolina also suffered through the foul problems experienced by sophomore center Ed Davis, who to this point in the season hasn’t put forth the kind of production expected by most. Davis has been pegged as the team’s most likely NBA entrant next spring, and the club has to figure out how to squeeze more offensive production from him in the post.

Senior Deon Thompson has been outstanding, however, and his 15 points and 12 rebounds were critical against the Buckeyes. Along with senior Marcus Ginyard, Thompson has taken on a much more vocal role on the team than he had in years past.

One thing to monitor tonight is how Carolina will attack Syracuse’s zone defense. Many teams will play zone against perimeter-challenged UNC this season, but the Orange are famous or infamous, if you prefer free-flowing basketball for it.

Moreover, Roy Williams finally is beginning to signal how he feels the personnel pecking order shapes up. Drew and Strickland had platooned at the opening of the season, but last night Drew played 27 minutes to Strickland’s 12.

Experience also has helped Ginyard (33 minutes on Thursday) and Will Graves (25) earn a great share of court time, while touted freshmen John Henson (8) and Leslie McDonald (DNP) have begun to languish on the bench.

The next question is to what extent Williams will try to garner experience for his young players, while also trying to win games against what will be an extremely difficult schedule through the remainder of the calendar year.

To get a look at last night’s box score, click here.