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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 three-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.

Some of his highlights were 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 of the night, 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."

Jacobson was more encouraged, saying he thought his team will have a renewed energy as it prepares for a three-game home stand next week with major strides still needing to be made.

"I'm looking forward to practice the next two days," he said. "There were a lot of things ... we can move forward with. And there's two or things really important things to the foundation in which we're playing basketball that we need to get to work on."

DEJA VU: Though Bennett Koch had some strong moments offensively, using a string of impressive post moves to record 11 points, some issues from last season flared up again.

Koch picked up two fouls in the first 4:27 of the game, then recorded a third at the 10 minute mark on an easy call where he extended his arm while trying to pound the ball inside.

"I know the majority of the fouls were definitely my fault" Koch said. "(Plays like) the push off, I just shouldn't do those things. (That's) me not being in position and trying to make up the play so it's just something I've just got to stay locked in on."

Carlson also had early foul trouble, picking up two before the seven-minute mark.

Though praising the leadership of his veteran starters, Jacobson knows he needs to see more from them in big moments.

"(They) are fifth-year seniors and they need to be able to be in a challenging game against high level players and not be in foul trouble and be productive so that we can put ourselves in a better spot," Jacobson said.

True freshman center Austin Phyfe also struggled in the paint, fouling out in just 12 minutes of action.

BROWN FINDS HIS SHOT: After hitting just three combined three-pointers in Missouri Valley Conference play last season, Brown equaled that total in the first half alone Friday.

Admitting he lost confidence at the end of last year, the sophomore guard, who was 3-for-6 from three Friday, spent most of the offseason attempting to get his shot off faster and from a higher release point.

And after seeing them go in at a high rate Friday, he is expecting to see similar results throughout the season.

"It felt so good when I see it go it," Brown said. "It builds my confidence builds the team's confidence. The team looks for me I look for them right back. It feels great."

NO PROGRESS: The reason Brown was in the starting lineup Friday was because of a toe injury that kept projected starting guard Wyatt Lohaus out of action.

Lohaus did travel with the team Friday, but still has a walking shoe on his right foot, and Jacobson remains unsure of when he can return to action.

"Nothing different," Jacobson said. "Nothing's changed."

The same is true for Hunter Rhodes (foot) and Justin Dahl (neck), who did not travel with the team Friday.

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