CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – There’s a tangible intensity leading up to tip-off for a North Carolina-Duke game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Crazies, rabid from days of camping out in Krzyzewskiville, lean over press row with dual intentions of rousing their Blue Devils and intimidating their opponent.
If there was ever a reason for an initial stumble, a momentary temptation to be drawn into a boisterous atmosphere, Duke’s home court offers the occasion. And yet, throughout Roy Williams’s tenure in Chapel Hill, his Tar Heels have embraced the raucousness from the tip, building double-digit leads in seven of their last nine games and eight of their last 11 in Durham.
Roy Williams credited the trend to “really good players who are really focused.”
“If you’re not focused, you’re going to get run out,” the 14th-year UNC head coach said on Tuesday. “And I think we’ve done that.”
However, UNC has only won three of those games in which it built double-digit leads, prompting Williams to draw the parallel of scratching a trio of birdies on the front nine only to double bogey the final three holes.
“I know in ’15 when they won the national championship, we had pretty significant leads there and here,” Williams said, “but we couldn’t finish the game, couldn’t finish the round, didn’t play the last hole or whatever it was. I think that was a big failing on our part, but you better understand that it’s a positive for them because they were able to withstand it.”
UNC’s veteran roster has experienced victory and defeat after jumping out to double-digit leads at Cameron Indoor. The Tar Heels led by 10 with 3:51 to play two years ago before losing 92-90 in overtime. Last year, UNC led by as many as 11 points and never trailed in a 76-72 win.
“You just have to pay attention to detail and you’ve got to stay locked in the whole game,” junior guard Joel Berry said. “You can’t think that just because you’re up 10 or whatever the game is over. You’ve got to continue to play until the last second.”
Berry’s latter point was highlighted in the 2015 loss, as UNC failed to score on five of its final six possessions and Duke rallied with an 11-2 run to force overtime.
“The biggest thing is going in there and playing your game,” senior forward Kennedy Meeks said. “I think when you go in there and you have the right mindset and you know the personnel of the other team… You know it’s going to be a hostile environment, especially for the young guys. The biggest thing for them is going to be staying the course and focusing on us as a team.”
Williams’s teams have long thrived on playing on the road, embracing the challenge of opponents playing in their preferred element. Junior wing Justin Jackson is not quite ready to add the 2016-17 Tar Heels to that category, though.
“I can’t say that for this team yet,” Jackson said. “We went to Indiana this year, which was one of the loudest places I’ve ever played in, and we didn’t play very well. But then we’ve also gone into some other places that have been pretty loud and we’ve been able to pull them out. This is a different type of animal.”
Sophomore guard Kenny Williams was one of five UNC underclassmen to play in the 76-67 loss at Indiana, a game in which the Hoosiers jumped out to a 26-9 lead. Such losses often provide the best learning experiences for not only young players, but for teams establishing an identity.
“There will be some times when things don’t go our way and we can’t fold in those moments,” Williams said. “We have to come together and respond.”
Those moments will come at Cameron Indoor on Thursday. How UNC responds will determine if it can secure a significant road victory in ACC play.
Sherrell McMillan contributed to this story