CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When Roy Williams returned to the Smith Center on Thursday afternoon, less than 24 hours after his fifth-ranked Tar Heels had coughed up an eight-point lead in a 74-73 loss to No. 20 Duke, he walked around the facility, looking for signs of life from his team.
He found it in the weight room, where 11 players were taking part in an optional lift.
“You can sulk about the way it happened on Wednesday night,” senior guard Marcus Paige said after Saturday’s win, “and sit around and hang your head and listen to all of the fans mad at us for taking away their opportunity at happiness in our game. But we just decided to make it about us. That lift doesn’t make you a better team, but it kind of pulls you back together and shows that guys are at least back committed and trying to focus on what we can change.”
In the aftermath of UNC’s loss to its blue-blooded rival, its third defeat in five games, detractors suggested the recent decline would shift into a free fall. They lamented the makeup of the roster, citing the philosophical flaws of Williams’s coaching style and a game that had passed the Hall of Fame coach by.
Williams was visibly distraught after that loss, searching for answers while admitting to reporters that he apologized to his team for not calling a timeout in the final frantic seconds. Instead of running his players to puking or forcing them to endure an hours-long film study on Thursday, he scrapped the day’s original plan to allow for an impromptu day off.
When the team reconvened on Friday, Williams showed his team two plays from the Duke game – one showing a failed screen on the final play that would have given Paige an open look, the other showing Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks allowing Marshall Plumlee to beat them down the floor for a score – and then he moved on to Miami.
“The fact of the matter is that we were 10-3 and tied for first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and every coach in the country would take that, so I wasn’t going to lay back on my side and have this ‘woe is me’ kind of crap,” Williams said. “And I told them I didn’t want to hear any of that junk from them. So they took care of it. It’s a long season.”
It didn’t take UNC (22-5, 11-3 ACC) long to reclaim sole possession of first place in the league standings. The game was over long before the final buzzer sounded, as the Tar Heels rolled past the Hurricanes (21-5, 10-4 ACC) with a 35-10 run in building a 75-43 lead with 10:01 to play.
UNC shot 60.3 percent through the opening 32 minutes of play, finishing at 54.2 percent for the game. When the starters subbed out with 4:28 to play, UNC was averaging 1.5 points per possession. Six Tar Heels scored in double figures, led by Johnson’s 16 points and 15 rebounds.
Miami, on the other hand, was forced to start its offense farther out on the perimeter due to UNC’s defensive pressure. The Hurricanes shot 42.4 percent for the game, boosting that percentage in garbage time.
The loss to Duke was an emotional hit for the Tar Heels, a soul-crushing experience that tests a player’s manhood. They heard the fan criticism. They read about media doubting the legitimacy of UNC being a Final Four contender. They knew their only options were to fold or to respond.
The Tar Heels chose the latter in spectacular fashion, building its largest lead of the season (38) against the nation’s 11th-best team on national television.
“They had our number from start to finish,” Miami head coach Jim Larranaga said.
UNC answered plenty of pressing questions on this spring-like afternoon in late February. The team showcased precision offensive efficiency, toughness and effort on the defensive end, and most importantly, a gritty resolve that has appeared lacking at times.
There was one new question to emerge following this dismantling: If a loss on Saturday would have confirmed the Tar Heels’ imminent decline into postseason obscurity, what will a win that ranks as arguably the nation’s best in 2015-16 do instead?