The Wildcats took their opportunity and ran with it. Villanova opened the second half with an 11-1 run, tying the score at 40 with just more than 16 minutes to play.
A visibly frustrated Williams then took all five of his starters off the court, where they sat out for almost two minutes as the Tar Heels’ backups tried to keep their season alive.
“(Williams) told us that we need to pick it up. Nobody wanted to go home tonight,” P.J. Hairston said. “We came together before we went in the game and said, ‘OK. This is it. We’re starting from here.’”
The Wildcats had been beating UNC on the boards all game long, and the Tar Heels didn’t pick up their second offensive rebound of the night until the 11:35 mark. By then, Hairston said, UNC had begun to double-team the post.
UNC found success when Williams switched to a smaller lineup in February and won six of their last seven regular-season games with Hairston as a permanent starter.
However, from the beginning, a reluctant Williams told his team that its rebounding success had better not fall by the wayside as a consequence. So when it began to against the Wildcats, Williams was quick to make a change.
With 9:33 left to play, North Carolina with a narrow 3-point lead, Williams subbed Dexter Strickland out and Jackson Simmons in. He used the bigger lineup for the remainder of the game to help fix the very problem he had warned against.
“He’s a coach that really emphasizes rebounding,” Marcus Paige said. “That’s part of why he doesn’t like going small because that’s what you give up. But he made that adjustment down the stretch and that was big for us, because they really were killing us on the inside.”
As the Tar Heels jumped around in the locker room celebrating their victory after the game, the number 700 was written on the whiteboard, along with the number 32: the amount of teams that will soon be left in the NCAA tournament.
Hairston said Williams got emotional when the team presented its coach with a North Carolina jersey, the number 700 embroidered on the back of it. Still, Williams insisted, Friday’s win wasn’t about him.
“My focus was not on that, it really wasn’t,” said Williams, now the fastest active coach to reach the 700-win benchmark. “It was trying to get number 25 and have this team stay and play another game.”
Strickland was quick to concede that getting Williams to the magic number wasn’t his team’s main motivation. The thought of UNC’s season ending then and there was enough to make it step up, he said.
They might not have had 700 to thank for their game-saving spark. But with the help of the wisdom generated from 699 before it, the Tar Heels had more than enough reason to celebrate.