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USC Won’t Be Awed Men Out

Times Staff Writer

Lodrick Stewart was recruited out of high school by North Carolina.

Jeff McMillan has played in the Smith Center a few times with a traveling AAU team.

And Dwayne Shackleford said the Tar Heels “put their shoes on one at a time, too, just like us.”

So, the way USC’s players see it, there’s no reason for them to be in awe of one of college basketball’s most storied programs. Because the Trojans know if they walk into the Dean Dome mouths agape for tonight’s nonconference game, they will surely be kicked to the Tobacco Road curb early by the No. 11-ranked Tar Heels.

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“This is the most important game of the season,” said Stewart, even if it is only the Trojans’ second game. “We’re underdogs. They’ve got everything to lose and we’ve got everything to gain.

“I love that gym. Maybe it’s all those banners they’ve got hanging in there. It’s a good gym to play basketball in.”

It will be the home opener for North Carolina, which recovered from its season-opening upset loss to Santa Clara in Oakland by winning the Maui Invitational last week.

And therein may lie an edge for USC. The Tar Heels, who have already played four games in six days while traveling across the continent and the Pacific Ocean, may be tired.

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“Hopefully we have some advantage with that,” USC Coach Henry Bibby said. “Hopefully they’re not playing well. Hopefully the win [Monday] gave us a lot of confidence.”

Bibby was referring to the Trojans’ season-opening 90-70 come-from-behind victory over UC Irvine.

USC had seven consecutive defensive stops early in the second half against the Anteaters, sparking the Trojans at the other end of the court.

Irvine, though, is no North Carolina.

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The Tar Heels, who were ranked as high as No. 1 by some preseason publications, have all five starters back from a team that went 19-11 in Coach Roy Williams’ first season at his alma mater.

They were a much different team when they fell to Santa Clara, 77-66, as junior point guard Raymond Felton was serving a one-game suspension. But with Felton at the helm in Hawaii, North Carolina beat Brigham Young, 86-50; Tennessee, 94-81, and Iowa, 106-92.

“They’re a better team [with Felton], but they can be beat,” McMillan said.

Junior swingman Rashad McCants, the Tar Heels’ demonstrative national player-of-the-year candidate, is averaging a team-high 20.5 points. The Trojans will try to deny McCants the ball on the perimeter, with the assignment most likely falling to senior guard Errick Craven and Stewart.

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“Basketball is basketball,” said Shackleford, who made three three-point baskets off the bench against UC Irvine. “There’s one ball and one rim. We’ve just got to go out there and play.”

Said Stewart: “I don’t think there’s an intimidation factor. We’ve just got to execute and play together. As long as we do that, then that’s OK.”

Even if the Trojans lose?

“I’d rather we played together,” Stewart said with a smile, “and got the win.”

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