But now, in the fourth game of this season? How did that happen?
It started with a very solid offensive game plan: Playing essentially without a low post player -- Sean May spent most of the night in the high post -- Carolina spread the court, left the lane clear, and looked to exploit individual one-on-one matchups: in particular Rashad McCants vs. Keith Langford. McCants set the tone for the night with an early hesitation, stop and go move by Langford for a dunk. The strategy of taking the ball hard to the goal put Kansas on its back foot -- and also helped minimize turnovers.
But it wasn't as if the Heels made mad dashes to the basket in a foolish manner. Indeed, Carolina worked the ball around the court exceptionally well against the Kansas defense, frequently finding Jawad Williams for open looks in the corner. North Carolina led by 9 at half, but the margin could have been even higher had the Heels knocked down a couple more open jumpers.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels were putting forth a great defensive effort: 11 blocked shots, 21 Kansas turnovers, 40% FG shooting, just two made 3s. Kansas did outrebound UNC 41-28, but it was hardly the inside domination many expected. Perhaps most impressively, Sean May and Jawad Wiliams did not stop defending when they did concede offensive boards, and continued to challenge shots. May finished with 5 blocks to go along with 4 steals and 11 boards -- including, it seemed, every important one in the final few minutes.
Above all, however, this game was about a young team not being afraid to take a game by the scuff of the throat, and then having the maturity to play intelligent basketball to close out a W. After the great second half start to push the lead to 50-33 and force a Kansas timeout with 16 and a half minutes to play, the neutral observer had to think: Now's the time Carolina will let up a little bit, make some dumb plays, Roy will get Kansas's attention with a couple of timeouts, this will be a close game at the end.
Didn't happen. If anything, Carolina became ever more aggressive on the defensive end in the game's final segments, while calmly using lots of shot clock on the offensive end. McCants scored 10 of his 12 second half points (25 overall) in the vital six minute stretch between the 14 and 8 minute mark. Kansas's half court pressure did not cause Carolina major problems in the end game, and the Heels got enough defensive stops to never allow the Jayhawks to change the momentum.
All in all, an astonishing performance, and an emotional win. The Carolina locker contained plenty of scenes to cherish: assistant coaches hugging one another, basketball operations head David Cason having a few heart-to-heart words with first half hero Melvin Scott followed by a hand clasp, even Dick Vitale coming in to personally congratulate Jawad Williams and Raymond Felton. 45 minutes after the game, happy family members and a number of Tar Heel fans gathered near the exit to Madison Square Garden to high-five players as the bus gradually filled up with smiling Tar Heels.
But what was most impressive, perhaps, was the absence of shock among the key performers in the Tar Heel locker room. Twenty minutes after the buzzer of a game that no doubt left Tar Heels fans nationwide agog with excitement, Rashad McCants was calmly answering questions in reasoned tones, as if his heartbeat rate had hardly been raised by the night's events. Overall, the tone was one of satisfaction with a great accomplishment -- but not the extremely emotional, teary-eyed response that sometimes takes place when a team does the truly unexpected. Simply put, this was the response of a team that expects itself to do well -- no matter the opposition or setting.
Whether Carolina can come close to duplicating its remarkable performance against the stingy zone defense of Stanford Friday night remains to be seen. What is already certain is that Wednesday night was a huge, legendary win for the UNC program -- one of Carolina's biggest regular season wins ever, and one all Carolina fans will, rightly, feel both ecstatic about and thankful for.
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many. Thad welcomes your emails at firstname.lastname@example.org