Wednesday's win over Rutgers was the blue plate special. Meatloaf and gravy, mashed potatoes, and creamed corn. Working man's good. A little ugly on the plate, sure, and a little rough on the heart, but satisfying nourishment that will stay with you and keep you going all day.
There's no doubt that Carolina's 71-67 comeback win over the Scarlet Knights sparked a little cardiac distress in Tar Heel country, and no one would ever mistake the game UNC played for beautiful basketball. But unlike Monday's blowout victory, which left fans questioning how bad Penn State was as much as they were celebrating how good Carolina appeared to be, Wednesday demonstrated fairly convincingly that things have changed in Chapel Hill this season. It's one thing to fast break a poor opponent to death and shoot a high percentage on dunks and layups. It's another to grind it out against a tough defensive team on a night when your shots aren't dropping--to dig down deep, grit your teeth, and just do what it takes to scratch out a "W." After all, last year's version of the Tar Heels managed to blow out Texas A & M. What they couldn't do was win those 50-50 games that were close down the stretch. But this group is decidedly different.
Ponder for a moment the things that were evident Wednesday night in the Smith Center--things that hadn't been seen for what felt like an eternity:
Team unity. How many intense team huddles at the foul line do you remember from last season? I don't know about you, but I remember not a one. Who brought the guys together? Who circled the wagons, looked everybody in the eye, and said that if they all pulled together, things were going to turn out fine? Who spoke for the Carolina family?
The season is only two games old, but those questions seem like a distant memory. This young team's chemistry was evident on the court and in the locker room on Monday night, as everyone celebrated the coming out party for the freshmen and the total domination of Penn State. There were few tests on that night, however. Rutgers brought the test. Carolina's players made mistakes right and left, particularly in a sloppy first half that left the Heels lucky to trail by single digits. But there was no finger pointing, and no panic. The boys in blue kept huddling, kept building each other up, kept fighting. And in the end, it wasn't a single player's star turn that brought the Tar Heels back. It was a true team effort, from five-man defensive pressure that sparked Rutgers' collapse to the game's closing plays. How appropriate that Carolina's basket to take the lead was a perfect synergy of team basketball--defending, boxing out, outletting, driving, passing, and finishing. By the time Jawad Williams laid it in, all four of his teammates deserved an assist. It was that kind of night.
While Sean May's tough play through cramps, Raymond Felton's leadership at the point, and McCants's vocal refusal to lose were magnetic forces, perhaps Williams deserves the most credit for pulling the team together when the chips were down Wednesday. Last season's upperclassmen struggled all year with the best way to draw their more athletic freshmen teammates into the circle, often trying to take on leadership as a solo role and go it alone. But Wednesday Williams set aside any ego and ignored the temptation to pull on the hero's cape. Instead, he reached out to Carolina's three freshmen stars, pointing to the name on the jersey and inviting them to show they belonged as members of the Tar Heel family. And show it they did.
Pressure defense. There weren't many times last year when Carolina's opponents looked ready to fold, but much of that was because the Tar Heels rarely were able to muster any offensive or defensive pressure. But Wednesday was different. Rutgers certainly obliged their hosts by firing up poor shots and calling quick timeouts when inbounds passes were defended. But if their collars got a little tight down the stretch, it's because Matt Doherty told his team to turn up the heat, and this year, Carolina has the athletes to do it. Even though most of the starting five had logged 30 minutes or more by the game's closing seconds, this group had the conditioning and tenacity to press full court, deny in the passing lanes, trap on the sidelines, and pick the pockets of shaky ballhandlers. No play typified this better than Felton's poke-away steal while laying on the court with under two minutes to play, but also impressive were Williams's denial of Herve Lamizama in the closing minutes and Jackie Manuel's shut-down defense of Rutgers' leading scorer, Jerome Coleman. Carolina's eight steals couldn't match the eleven swipes by Rutgers, but Carolina got all the ones that mattered with the game on the line. It will be a long time before the Tar Heels can deliver 40 minutes of hell, or maybe even 30 minutes of chaos, as Rutgers tried to create. But unlike last season, this Tar Heel team can get a stop when they need one--or six.
Quality game management. There were times last season that it appeared Doherty and his assistants could not find the right buttons to push with their team, and on many maddening occasions it seemed they couldn't even get the players' attention. How many timeouts last year were followed by an immediate Carolina turnover off an inbounds pass, a missed defensive assignment and easy layup by the opposition, or a poor shot that was nowhere within the framework of the offense. But the staff deserves a great deal of credit for keeping the Tar Heels in the game in the second half, calling timeouts to help ensure that Rutgers' lead did not balloon out of reach and focusing the players on each possession down the stretch. By challenging his players to pick up full court, Doherty helped ensure that they would stay focused on getting the stops they needed, and most importantly, Doherty trusted his knowledge of his team in calling two quick timeouts in the final moments to get their minds straight and calm their nerves. "I want to get the look in their eyes," said Doherty after the game. So often last year it appeared the coaches and players couldn't get their eyes to meet, but already this young season, they are reading each other and responding as needed. This is a testament to the smart, coachable players that Doherty has brought into the program, but it is also a testament to the staff's ability to get this group's attention early and keep it when distractions abound.
A comeback win. Remember when UNC would be down seven, or ten, or even twenty points late, and deep down you were confident that the Heels would find a way to pull it out? Remember when Dean Smith would find a way to milk six possessions out of sixty seconds and almost magically figure out a way to be sure Carolina could hold for the last shot? There have been a few of those great moments since Smith retired, but not many. But for a night at least, the magic was back in the house that Dean built, and it was easy to imagine the old coach smiling as he watched his former player lead the youngest team in UNC history all the way back from what seemed like a disappointing loss to an amazing, formative win. It's quite possible that other opponents this year won't be nearly so accommodating as the road-phobic Scarlet Knights. It's possible that the three-point rock won't bank in off the glass to reduce the lead under ten. It's possible that the little flip shot in traffic will fall off the rim or the loose ball will slide just out of bounds before it can be snared and carried upcourt for a quick transition basket. But Wednesday it all came together in an ugly yet strangely perfect package. And now this team can go forward believing that it can gut it out, even on a night when they appear to be outclassed. That is a lesson that can't be taught in practice.
And that, in short, is why I'd take Wednesday over Monday any day of the week.
You can email Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org.