Sometimes, it truly is as simple as coming back home.
For a North Carolina basketball team in disarray, that time-tested remedy validated itself once again Saturday afternoon. Gone were the baggage claims and the overhead storage bins of the past two weeks — those journeys are mere memories, albeit painful ones, at this point.
Instead they trekked, over sheets of ice and remnants of snow, back to the place they know so well. They went not to the Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh, nor to Cameron Indoor Stadium eight miles down the road.
They came to the house Dean Smith built, or perhaps the house built for him. And in their first game back in Chapel Hill since the legendary coach’s passing, the No. 15 Tar Heels (19-8, 9-5 ACC) did as their predecessor had so many times before: they won, drubbing Georgia Tech (12-15, 3-12 ACC) 89-60.
“Being home today was great,” said freshman wing Justin Jackson. “You know, you don’t really realize how important home is until you go on a stretch like we did, going away.
“To be back home, and have the fans into it … that was really big.”
The final score will be documented and recorded, but the numbers ablazing the jumbotron after 40 minutes of play signify much more than a result.
This will signify a response, proof that a team reeling from heartbreak hasn’t forgotten what brought them together in the first place.
“I’d say it’s been kinda down for us,” said sophomore center Kennedy Meeks. “But Coach always says we’ve gotta keep fighting, gotta play the Carolina Way. Like I said, last couple games I think we’ve played tough, just teams made some big-time shots, big-time execution.”
Against Pitt, it was big-time shots that fell for 40 minutes — only not for UNC. The Panthers shot 64.9 percent on the night en route to an 89-76 victory exactly a week ago.
Against Duke, it was big-time execution — by the Blue Devils. Duke overcame a seven-point deficit with under two minutes left in regulation and ended up winning 92-90 in overtime.
Two road trips, two losses, two more setbacks in a seemingly-never ending stretch.
But Saturday was different.
UNC shot 61.3 percent from the floor in the first half, its second-highest percentage in a first half this season. Six players finished the game with double digit points. Marcus Paige, after scoring only five points against Duke, had his first career double-double: 13 points, 10 assists, zero turnovers.
“Needless to say, it was a great day for us,” Coach Roy Williams said. “To shoot 63 percent for the game and only have eight turnovers, it was a pretty good bounce-back from a very disappointing game Wednesday night.
“People were worried about carry-over, I wasn’t worried about that. I was worried about having enough players to dress out.”
The injury bug, while no stranger for the Tar Heels, reared its ugly head again Saturday. Joel Berry spent Saturday’s game in the hospital with a stomach issue, while Desmond Hubert and Theo Pinson sat idly by on the bench in dark-colored suits, both out possibly for the season.
But it didn’t matter Saturday.
What mattered was more than the end result alone. A win is always important, yes, but timing plays a part in the equation, too.
A loss would have been UNC’s third in a row, an indication that while the season was still ongoing, it wasn’t.
J.P. Tokoto’s end-to-end dunk, Marcus Paige’s first 3-pointer of the afternoon, even Justin Coleman’s spot on the floor at the end of the game will all be remembered. But Jackson, alone at a table after the game, knew best how important this particular ‘W’ was.
He knows what it means to come back home.
“It was huge.”
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