Seven days ago, the No. 21 North Carolina men’s basketball team was in a slump. UNC (19-7, 8-5 ACC) had lost three straight for the first time since 2014 and entered a game against Pittsburgh needing an inspired performance. The Tar Heels won that game by 31 points, but were not quite in the clear. With games against Duke and N.C. State and less than 48 hours apart, the Tar Heels could have wilted in the face of adversity and gone 0-2.
But these Tar Heels have dealt with adversity before. Four of the five starters were on the two previous teams that reached the National Championship game and are no strangers to the odds against them.
On Thursday, UNC produced a statement win in its most impressive performance of the season, defeating No. 9 Duke, 82-78, at the Smith Center.
Entering Saturday’s game against N.C. State, a letdown could have been expected after such an emotional victory. But these Tar Heels have seen it all and were not about to come out complacent against another rival. With a sea of red surrounding the court and the Wolfpack (16-9, 6-6 ACC) having already beaten UNC in Chapel Hill, it looked like N.C. State would play spoiler again.
But head coach Roy Williams and the Tar Heels would not let that happen.
This time was different. This time UNC played the role of spoiler, quieting the Wolfpack crowd in an up-and-down game that was filled with twists and turns before securing a 96-89 victory. The win gave UNC its third in just seven days and moved the Tar Heels to 8-5 in conference play, boosting an already strong resume.
It did not always seem like a Tar Heel victory. The first half was full of runs. The Tar Heels went on a 9-0 run, then the Wolfpack answered with a 5-0 run to tie it. Another 12-2 run by UNC made it a ten-point game and it looked like the Tar Heels might be in the clear. The Wolfpack were not ready to give in, though, and responded with a 19-0 run that kept the building shaking to make it 37-28.
UNC was in trouble. Most teams would have quit in that situation. But the Tar Heels have been in this situation too many times before to shrink under pressure, despite Williams not calling a timeout.
“I wanted to chew their butts out,” Roy Williams said. “I told them, ‘I’m not going to bail you out. You dug this daggum hole, so play."
The team did just that, responding with a 7-0 run to end the first half and entered the break down by just two points.
"Going into a hostile environment like this, you know they were gonna come out and be ready to play today,” guard Joel Berry II said. “Like I said, we did a great job of not buying into what they were trying to do. We did a good job of just trying to withstand it and knowing that if we just stuck to what we were doing, that we were going to be just fine."
UNC brought that same composure in the second half, led by the leadership of Berry and the play of junior forward Luke Maye. Within the first four minutes, Maye had scored 11 points and UNC led 50-44.
But just like the first half, the Wolfpack did not go away and with the crowd behind them, it looked like the Tar Heels were in trouble.
The composure shown by the starters kept UNC alive during the high-scoring marathon that saw a combined 113 points in the last 20 minutes. With 7:13 remaining in the second half, Maye answered an N.C. State basket with a jumper to put his team up four.
With 6:50 remaining in the contest, the Wolfpack had pulled the lead to within two yet again. Maye answered again with a layup as part of his 27 second-half points. He finished with a career-high 33 points on the night, but he was not the only Tar Heel to hit tough shots down the stretch.
The Wolfpack continued to return with some heavyweight punches and with just over two minutes remaining, the ball was in Theo Pinson’s hands. The lead was three points. Pinson drove into the lane and flicked in a nifty layup to provide his team with some much needed insurance.
Later, the Tar Heels again needed a big shot, up by two with 1:33 remaining. This time it was Kenny Williams who delivered, hitting a dagger 3-pointer to bring the lead back to five with 73 seconds on the clock. After a scoreless first half from Williams, the junior responded with 11 second-half points, none more important than that three.
“We’ve been here so many times, we’ve done it,” the guard said. “Nothing’s new. We can rely on what we’ve done previously to get us past whatever new obstacles”.
After an emotionally draining win against Duke, the Tar Heels responded with another statement performance. The team stayed composed at halftime and shot lights out in the second half, converting 78.1 percent of its shots. It was the best shooting half in Roy Williams' UNC tenure.
With just five games remaining in the regular season, UNC is relying on its experience and composure to carry it against less experienced opponents. It worked on Thursday night and it worked today. And Kenny Williams believes it could carry the team to a third consecutive national title game.
“I think we can make another run,” Williams stated. “A championship run. If everybody is hitting on all cylinders, I think we can go back.”