FOR THE FIRST TIME in 45 years, a top-ranked visitor took to the floor at the Palestra.

And for the better part of a half, Penn, which had never hosted a No. 1 team, at least looked as if it belonged out there with the opponents.

A North Carolina squad brimming with wannabe pros. A young Penn club simply trying to find an identity by the time the Ivy League season rolls around in a little less than 2 months.

It wasn't supposed to be much of a matchup. Yet, as a packed house and an ESPN2 audience found out, the Quakers came to hoop a little, too.

Eventually, the reality of the situation set in, and the Tar Heels (8-0) headed back to Tobacco Road with a 106-71 win. Last season, it was 102-64 in the Dean Dome, in a game that didn't get blown open until the closing stretch. But that was different. Those Quakers had multiple 3-year starters. These Quakers start three freshmen.

One, guard Tyler Bernardini, finished with 26 points. It was his second consecutive career high.

"I really enjoyed it," he said. "In the beginning, it was great. We had a little run, and the place was rocking. It was a fun game to look forward to.

"We couldn't keep up in the second half. A lot of things kind of got away from us. My mind-set was to try and relax. You can try to do too much with the ball, get a little antsy. [Now], we've got to move on. We have a lot of season ahead of us."

If the Quakers (2-7) can build on experiences like this, things might turn out OK, after all. On Saturday, they got blown out from the start at Villanova. They bus to Monmouth this Saturday.

"[North Carolina] might have all the accolades we don't, but you have to compete," said Brian Grandieri, the only other Quaker to score in double digits (17). "We got out of the gate pretty strong. I don't know if we got tired in the second half, but they just broke us down. They kept bringing five more horses in, and it takes a toll. There's some positives, but there's still a lot of work to get done [too].

"These are all just tests. The Ivy League's our ticket [to the NCAAs]. All these games are good preparation."

The Quakers were within six after 15 minutes. By the break, the margin was 13. UNC can do that to a lot of teams. Four minutes into the second half, it was a 24-point game.

"Basically, we have more guys [than them]," said Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, one of the game's class acts. "It's extremely difficult for [Penn]. The experience factor is so important in college basketball."

In 1998, Williams brought a Kansas team here and came away with a 61-56 victory over a Penn team that would win the Ivies. This time, he came because one of his best players, Wayne Ellington, is a Philly guy. The sophomore guard didn't play his best game, but it was the thought that counted.

"I was a little anxious," Ellington acknowledged, after going 5-for-14 from the field and scoring 13 points. "I had a lot of family and friends [watching]. I'll get over it. The most important thing is we got the win.

"It was a good atmosphere for us."

One sign read: "Jimmy V [as in Valvano] lived for upsets." True. But it wasn't happening.

The Quakers shot 56 percent in the first half, 39 thereafter. They had way too many turnovers (22), some unforced, and got crushed on the boards (49-24). The Heels, who got 29 points and 10 rebounds from big man Tyler Hansbrough (12-for-16) in only 25 minutes, didn't even make a three-pointer until real late. They didn't have to. It didn't hurt that they got 19 points in 16 minutes off the bench from Danny Green (9-for-12).

"I love playing in little gyms like this," Hansbrough said. "It kind of reminds me of high school. I never heard about it, as a kid . . . We've played in tough atmospheres before."

The teams will open the season next year down there.

"We came out with a good game plan and good focus, but it's a 40-minute game," Penn coach Glen Miller said. "In the second half, we really didn't make the adjustments we talked about at halftime.

"Obviously, they're very good. There was some growth. We'll see [what it means]. If we lost by six and did some good things, Monmouth isn't going to care. Where do we go from here? It's got to be about playing a complete game.

"This game has to help from a confidence standpoint. There are still small things that young players have to pick up on. But when we executed, it worked, against the best there is."

And when they couldn't, well, it makes for a 35-point difference. *