CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. – Not a mass starting lineup change, nor a visit to ACC cellar dweller Boston College, could shake No. 9 North Carolina out of its midseason doldrums on Tuesday. It took a health scare by Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams to rally the Tar Heels past the Eagles, 68-65.
Boston College, which never led in double-digit losses to Louisville and Virginia last week, held the lead for over 35 minutes against UNC. That lead grew to as much as 49-40 with 16:32 left to play. Two minutes later, during the first media timeout of the second half, Williams collapsed on the sideline due to a severe bout of vertigo after arguing an officiating call.
Assistant coach Steve Robinson took over after Williams was helped to the locker room with UNC trailing 49-44. While the deficit would extend back to eight points with 8:58 remaining, the adversity focused the Tar Heels both in defensive intensity and offensive execution.
“We needed to change, we were getting our butts kicked, but that kind of lit a fire under us,” senior guard Marcus Paige said. “It’s bad that sort of thing would have to light a fire under us. We’re playing for a lot these days, but for whatever reason, that kind of got us going and lifted us.”
Robinson, who has served on Williams’s staff for 21 years in addition to head coaching tenures at Tulsa and Florida State, slid into the lead dog role and told reporters he never once addressed Williams’s situation with the players.
“We work for a great guy, and he has us prepared, and I’ve always said I’m going into each and every game that I should always be prepared if he gets sick or gets tossed in a game, that I can just step right in and manage the team,” Robinson said. “I thought our staff did a great job of managing the team, managing the game down the stretch.”
Boston College scored 16 points on its 22 possessions – good for 0.73 points per possession - after Williams left the court. After Eli Carter pushed the Eagles ahead by a 60-59 margin on a 3-pointer with 2:15 to play, Robinson did what Williams so often does not. He called a timeout. On UNC’s ensuing play, Paige drained a corner 3-ball to give UNC a lead it would not relinquish.
“He made all of the right calls down the stretch, and it was good to see,” Paige said. “It changed my perspective on him, because I’ve never had to be in that moment in my four years. He was great… He was the rock that held us together in that moment.”
UNC’s late rally came long after a change to the starting lineup failed to produce its desired effect. Williams inserted forwards Joel James and Isaiah Hicks and wing Theo Pinson into the starting five in place of forwards Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks and wing Justin Jackson.
It took Boston College less than six minutes to build a 13-4 lead that would take UNC 30 minutes to overcome.
“I think that was a big thing for us, just trying to shake it up a little bit and just try to get us going,” Robinson said. “It didn’t quite work in the first half, but it did motivate some other guys in a different way to play a little harder, give a little bit more, and I think some guys responded that way.”
Jackson, who entered Tuesday’s contest averaging 9.3 points on 39 percent shooting in ACC play, turned his best performance of 2016 with a team-high 20 points on 9-of-11 shooting, due in part to a more assertive style of play.
“It didn’t affect me,” Jackson said of the benching. “Obviously, whenever you see it, you think about it a little bit because you want to be out there. For me, Coach came up to me at shootaround and told me, ‘You’ll probably play about the same minutes, you’ll still play the same exact way whenever you start.’ So for me, I just tried to get out there and just tried to keep it going with whatever the team had going on before I got out there.”
There wasn’t much good going on when the regular starters entered the game, and that didn’t change until vertigo entered the equation. That scare woke the Tar Heels up and likely prevented their first three-game losing streak since January 2014.