Current Date: Tue, 10 Dec 2013 11:47:55 -0500
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — One year ago, the cramped locker room nestled in the Donald L. Tucker Center was silent, as the North Carolina men’s basketball team reflected on the 33-point drubbing it had just endured at the hands of unranked Florida State.
From those same four walls Saturday, after UNC’s 77-72 victory against the Seminoles, rang the sounds of celebration.
Guys were laughing, clapping and carrying on with their teammates beside them as they prepared to leave behind the arena that, for many, instills memories of both boundless despair and great relief.
In the corner, Jackson Simmons, the game’s unassuming hero, sat quietly, perhaps letting the team’s first conference victory of the season — and his career afternoon — soak in. After all, the 15 minutes of playing time the sophomore scholarship player saw were more than he ever expected.
“Every time I kept going back in, I tried to keep doing what I did from the first moment I stepped on the court,” said Simmons, who tallied a career-high eight points. “That was, do everything it takes to help the team win.”
Simmons, who celebrated his 20th birthday Saturday, played just more than four minutes in the first half, during which he had an assist, a rebound and sunk one of his three field goals. Liking what he saw, coach Roy Williams continued to send Simmons in throughout the second half.
With 4:16 to play, UNC trailing 70-69, James Michael McAdoo picked up his fourth foul and came out of the game following two made FSU free throws. In one of the smallest lineups Williams said he’s ever played, Simmons remained in the game until the end.
The Tar Heels overcame the three-point deficit, and the Seminoles wouldn’t score again.
In last year’s game, Simmons received attention for being one of the five players left on the court following the Tar Heels 90-57 loss after Williams controversially led most of the other players into the locker room with 14.2 seconds left to play.
Simmons, who was 3-for-3 from the field with four of UNC’s 19 offensive rebounds, was on the court Saturday when time expired. But this time, his teammates were steps away on the sideline, cheering him on.
“When he came in and gave us that spurt, I was one of the happiest players on the team,” Reggie Bullock said. “Just seeing him out there doing those things, and knowing he’s one of the hardest workers on the team, it’s good to see somebody like that achieve their goals.”
UNC outrebounded the Seminoles 41-19, and P.J. Hairston put up a career-high 23 points. The Tar Heels also held FSU guard Michael Snaer, preseason All-American and first-team All-ACC, to just nine points.
But what really struck a chord with Simmons was how his team ended the game, even when things didn’t seem to be going right.
“We had a sense of urgency, and we transformed the way we’ve been practicing to the way we play,” Simmons said. “And the way we’ve been practicing, as you saw tonight, is pretty doggone good.”
At his post-game press conference, Williams was fortunate to have a lot of positive things to recognize about his team; first and foremost, someone in particular.
“Happy birthday to Jackson,” he said. “I don’t know if the guys were teasing me about it or what but if that’s the case, I’m going to tell him every day is his freakin’ birthday.”
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