As North Carolina ran out of the locker room to begin a tournament that no Tar Heel aspired to reach, Marcus Ginyard laughed.
They were in a gym that hadn’t been used for men’s basketball in 24 years, coming off two straight losses and one loss from the second-most in program history.
And yes, it was only that “other” postseason tournament.
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Yet there was Ginyard, who may have ridden the season’s lows lower than any other UNC player, bouncing around and joking at midcourt with his teammates.
And there was fellow senior Deon Thompson a couple minutes later, waving his arms at the crowd after UNC had stormed out to a quick 7-0 lead before even allowing visiting William & Mary to attempt a field goal.
Maybe it’s the knowledge that in order to keep playing basketball, they need to win games. Maybe it’s a lack of pressure in a tournament considered to be less important. Or maybe it’s a season’s worth of lowered expectations.
Whatever the cause, the Tar Heels have been noticeably loose since the beginning of the National Invitational Tournament. It finally looks like they’re having some fun.
“I don’t know what happened, but it’s just been a lot more fun recently,” sophomore Tyler Zeller said. “It doesn’t really make sense. We play harder but we’re having more fun, which you don’t really think of as going together, but it is right now.”
The two may be more related than Zeller lets on. And granted, it’s easy to have a good time when the results are falling the right way.
“When you play hard and win, you have fun,” freshman John Henson said. “So that’s kind of how it’s been.”
But the causal link might go the other way, too. Perhaps it’s not only fun because they’re winning; maybe they’re winning because they’re having fun again.
When the losses were piling up in the middle of the season, several players commented that it was difficult even to face their peers around campus.
“It got to the point where I didn’t even want to go out,” Larry Drew II said. “I didn’t want to be bothered with some of the people. I didn’t even think I deserved to go out.”
Lately, the mood has changed.
“A lot more people are coming out and saying we support you guys,” Drew said. “People just telling us to keep our heads up, not to listen to what people say negatively.
“And I think people are embracing the whole NIT thing also. We’re not in the NCAA Tournament — people know that. But this NIT thing has been fun also.”
On the court, things have been different, too. Along with some added smiles and high fives, point production has ballooned.
Before the NIT, it had been 18 games since UNC had scored 80 points. The Tar Heels had been held under 70 in six of their last seven games.
In their first two games of the tournament, the Tar Heels put up 80 and 76, respectively.
“I definitely feel looser,” Drew said. “I think it’s knowing that if you lose, your season is done. I just want to keep playing.”
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