Moments before, the North Carolina men’s basketball coach had been caught on video gleefully skipping into an elated locker room after UNC’s 87-78 victory over Arkansas in the third round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night. He’d jumped up and down in the middle of the UNC celebration pit, and he’d crouched down to flex at his players, who all flexed and screamed back.
Excitement for a Sweet 16 bid rang through the walls, and after he’d given 6-foot-9 Brice Johnson a heartfelt embrace, Williams had grabbed a whiteboard marker to write the number 16 on the board for all to see.
For the first time since 2012, Williams and the Tar Heels were Sweet 16 bound — they’d celebrated appropriately, and the video was proof.
But when Williams took his seat at the postgame press conference to address the media, the jubilation turned into thoughtful reflection. There was a sense that perhaps this one might have meant a little bit more than usual.
When he was asked about it, the room fell to a silence.
“I’m an emotional guy,” he said. “Losing Coach Smith, losing Ted Seagroves, my big-time buddy, Stuart Scott, the stuff that we’ve had going on, Mitch Kupchak’s daughter — it’s been a tough year. It really has. I probably acted sillier in the locker room after this game than I have in quite a while.
“I’m going to try to enjoy the dickens out of this one for a while.”
UNC, known for its quick pace, beat Arkansas, the fastest team it has played all season, after a third-round matchup that saw 10 ties, 11 lead changes and 40 total bench points between the two teams.
Back and forth they went, until midway through the second half, UNC broke away to send the Tar Heels to the Sweet 16. It’s the first time that anyone on the current team — except for Stilman White, Jackson Simmons and Desmond Hubert — has advanced past the first weekend of the tournament.
And for the junior class in particular, a weight has now been lifted.
“The first weekend has been the hump for our class, for our team the last couple years,” junior guard Marcus Paige said. “You don’t want to be a North Carolina basketball player and have the reputation of not being able to make it through the first weekend of the tournament.
“Exorcise the demons ... it’s so liberating.”
With the win, Williams now has 750 career wins and 65 NCAA Tournament wins — good for second all-time in the tournament and tied with Dean Smith.
“I forget who it was — asked me about if we (won Saturday) I’d tie Coach Smith for the second most wins in the NCAA Tournament,” Williams said. “That means a lot to me.”
And perhaps on this Saturday night, it meant more than it would in any other season. For a few moments in that locker room, laughter and bliss took the place of the grief and loss Williams has felt during what has been emotional year.
“I’ve never seen two guys that were hurt as much as (Williams) and (Hubert Davis) were that day (Smith) passed. It’s a great honor to be a part of this program and get to honor him the way we did,” Johnson said.
“I gave (Williams) a big hug after today. Any time we get a big win like that, I always give him a big hug.”