CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Before every game, Roy Williams writes three keys on the locker room whiteboard, detailing points of emphasis specific to the opponent. Those notes blur together over the course of a career, yielding a clear philosophy applicable only to the basketball court.
The Hall of Fame coach also jots down a thought of the day, often a quote that carries a message beyond the locker room. Those messages have a far greater lasting impact, and as such, they tend to stay fresh in the players’ minds.
The one that sticks most with Marcus Paige has a nice rhyme to it: “Persistence prevails when all else fails.”
It’s a thought of the day that Williams has written on his whiteboard multiple times over the years, and it’s appropriate given the challenges his program has faced during the careers of Paige and fellow seniors Brice Johnson and Joel James. There’s been player suspensions and a lingering NCAA cloud complete with an accompanying media scrutiny. There’s been negative recruiting and an inability to win at the highest level.
And so on Monday, following a 75-70 win over Syracuse on Senior Night, Williams did not spend much time soaking in the stat sheet like he does after every other game. The only stat that mattered was the final score.
“To me, the day was about winning,” the 13th-year head coach said. “I didn’t care how. I didn’t care if we shot the ball well. I didn’t care if we rebounded it well. I just wanted to look up on the clock and see that we had more.”
Moments before, Williams had stood at center court after the seniors’ speeches and told the Smith Center crowd that this team may be his favorite of all-time. During the toughest stretch of his coaching career, this squad has offered a daily outlet from the outside world. No criticism, no condemnation, just basketball.
Persistence has become a requirement for a program under a glaring spotlight.
“We can’t control a lot of the stuff that’s going on in the media and that’s going on with the scrutiny our program has,” Paige said. “You’ve just got to come back to work the next day and grind and try to make the best out of the opportunity we have.”
UNC’s win over Syracuse was similar to so many of its other wins this season, lacking perfection but enough talent and skill to get the job done. This team’s potential is still on the horizon, and as March arrives, no one knows if the Tar Heels will reach that objective before the season runs out. Even so, UNC is 24-6 and a win away from a No. 1 seed in next week’s ACC Tournament and, more importantly, a ACC regular season championship.
That would be the first championship of any kind for this group of seniors.
“That’s pressure I like,” Williams said when asked if he felt a greater sense of urgency to win something, anything, in March. “I’d hate to be in a situation where we had no chance. But I’ve been fortunate. I’ve led a great career professionally and I want those kids to have some of those feelings. I really do. It’s not 'Ol’ Roy is really gracious,' that’s a bunch of junk. I’m just being truthful.
“I’ve got some championship rings, some conference rings and all of that stuff, but I would give so much if those kids could get something like that.”
As much as the players want to keep playing and winning for personal reasons, there’s a sense of program pride in play as well.
“Even though we’ve had some lineup issues and some ups and downs the last few years,” Johnson said, “it would really mean a lot because we want to be able to just bring back the tradition here of winning. Winning championships.”
Paige, sitting in his corner nook of the players’ lounge fielding questions for the last time, spoke about the value of winning as his career draws to a close. He joked about no longer being able to save his shooting percentage this season, while finding confidence in making quality plays with the ball in his hands against the Orange, but most of all, he talked about winning.
“I just want to win, because you will be remembered as a winner,” Paige said. “People will say, 'oh, he had a great sophomore year and he was All-ACC his junior year. Not a great senior year, in terms of production, but they came together and they made a Final Four run.' That’s so much more worth it to me, being a part of something as a team, than to sit and worry about my individual play.”
Perfection is not required for a deep run in March, or even into April, but persistence undoubtedly is. The Tar Heels have not played to their potential much, if at all, this season, yet they find themselves atop the ACC standings with one regular season game to go.
“We’re not done,” Paige told the crowd during his emotional Senior Night speech. “We’re not done. We’ve got something left to do.”