“We were just on the bus and saw Cincinnati lose to Harvard, and they were a No. 5 seed and Harvard was a 12,” J.P. Tokoto said. “It’s basically, anything could happen, you see it happening in front of you. “
But the gravity of their situation didn’t appear to phase the sixth-seeded Tar Heels (23-9) .
After exiting the bus, the group was lighthearted.
Wade Moody donned a green wig and tinted glasses in the locker room and took on the role of interviewing his teammates.
Brice Johnson sang his own rendition of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” Kennedy Meeks got down on his hands and knees in an attempt to distract Marcus Paige during interviews.
Out on the court, others playfully took jabs at each other and attempted wacky shots during the open practice before coach Roy Williams chided his players to take ‘game-like’ shots.
It was a celebratory atmosphere, reminiscent of the mood during the height of the Tar Heels’ 12-game winning streak .
But the reality of North Carolina’s situation is much more serious than the players let on Thursday afternoon.
After experiencing the finality of an early ACC Tournament loss to Pittsburgh , the Tar Heels spent the interim readying for their next batch of sudden-death matches.
“Once we lost, that was it,” senior Leslie McDonald said. “We were kicked out of the tournament. We had to re-evaulate ourselves. We had to understand that, ‘Hey, this is a one and done deal. We don’t want to be like how we were in the ACC Tournament where we was watching other people play for the championship.’
“I think it’s hit us. We understand what’s at stake, so we’ll be ready.”
Despite closing the season with a 12-2 streak after a 1-4 start in conference play
, the Tar Heels stumbled through the final stretch of games.
A fire ignited by the prodding of Williams and the eruption of typically quiet James Michael McAdoo seemed to smoke out as North Carolina barely scraped out wins against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame before losing to Duke and Pittsburgh .
“During that stretch we got kind of comfortable,” McAdoo said. “We kind of got by by not necessarily playing our best, but obviously when we play against better competition, you’ve got to play to the best of your ability.
“Not to say that we played horrible in those games, we still had a chance to win both of them, but I think that just shows how good we can be and how capable we are when we do play to the best of our ability.”
But the extra time between tournaments gave the team a chance to go back to its roots and find an intensity lacking from the last few games.
Tonight, the Tar Heels face Providence (23-11) , a red-hot team coming off an upset of Creighton in the Big East championship.
The Friars boast a top-notch free throw percentage, a dynamic point guard in Bryce Cotton and a shallow, yet tireless rotation.
There’s a list of things Williams could point to as necessary for UNC’s success. But in the end, avoiding the same fate as Cincinnati and the growing list of other bounced higher seeds boils down to one thing.
“Technically we’ve got to rebound,” coach Roy Williams said. “We’ve got to run. We’ve got to defend. We’ve got to do all those things. But I think it’s just the passion. You have to have more passion now, and I think they understand that.”