They screamed. On the front row of the STAPLES Center Desmond Hubert and Sasha Seymore stood, each refusing to allow season-ending ACL tears get in the way of supporting their teammates.
He cried. This team, Roy Williams said after North Carolina fell to Wisconsin 79-72 in the Sweet 16 Thursday, was there for him when he needed it the most. His players had his back, as he coped with grief and personal loss.
“Congratulate Wisconsin. They’re a No. 1 seed for a reason,” the emotional Hall of Fame coach said in his opening statement. “But you know what? I’d still coach my kids because they’ve been something else for me this year. It’s been a hard year, but man — they’ve been some great kids.”
Indeed it was a hard year for Williams and the Tar Heels. The season began with questions surrounding the athletic department about an academic scandal. On Dec. 2, Williams’ neighbor and best friend in Chapel Hill for a dozen years, Ted Seagroves, died. Two months and five days later, on Feb. 7, his mentor Coach Dean Smith passed. He coached through it all. His players sympathized the whole way.
“The bond that you have, the bond that you have with the players is the strongest — stronger than anything there is, I think. Even when they’re knuckleheads, you still have that bond,” Williams said. “Losing Coach Smith was tough. Losing Ted Seagroves ... the things that went on — those kids, they cared about me.”
It was the closest UNC team senior Jackson Simmons said he had been apart of, as they all bonded to support Williams.
“Life’s a roller coaster,” he said. “I love every one of them to death.”
“We have great kids that enjoy being around each other,” Marcus Paige followed. “More so than my freshman year, more so than last year.”
So the Tar Heels see their season come to an end, finishing the year with a 26-12, 11-7 ACC record. There were exciting highs — wins over Louisville and Virginia as well as an ACC Championship berth — and there were hard lows — many of which came off the court. Now they can look forward to next season, a season Williams knows shows great promise, with all five starters eligible to return.
But on Thursday night, that’s not what he could think about. He wasn’t thinking about what he would have later. He reflected on what he had in this moment.
“Man oh man are they the kinds of kids I like to be around. There’s been a lot of stuff going on this year, but they, they helped me,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade my kids for anybody. (Wisconsin coach) Bo (Ryan) has got a great group. And Bo’s team won the game. But I wouldn’t trade my kids for anybody.”