CLEMSON, S.C.– His eyes misty, North Carolina men’s basketball head coach Roy Williams sat down in the media room at Littlejohn Coliseum to provide an update on his health. To his right sat Steve Robinson, the Tar Heels’ top assistant coach.
The vertigo episode that forced Williams to exit the court late in the first half Saturday evening and prevented him from returning brought about “excruciating pain” before he eventually began to feel “a heck of a lot better.”
But by this point, Williams was done talking about himself. This was Robinson’s moment. The fifth-ranked Tar Heels (24-5, 14-2 ACC) had just pulled out a nerve-racking 81-79 win against a Clemson team (17-12, 7-9 ACC) that knew it was on the brink of an NCAA tournament resume-building win and played like it.
And it was Robinson who became UNC’s leader from the bench, helping his players navigate through a second half full of highs and lows. After halftime, the Tar Heels led by nine, trailed by six, went over eight minutes without making a shot from the field, eventually led by seven with just over two minutes remaining and ultimately secured a victory with a final defensive stand in the game’s dying seconds.
“The whole University of North Carolina community should be really thankful that Steve Robinson is with us,” Williams said. “We’re thrilled, and I’m going to let him talk and I’m going to get the crap out of here.”
As always is the case, the players, not the coaches, were the ones performing the difference-making plays Saturday night.
Coby White continued to look less and less like a first-year as he poured in 28 points and prevented Clemson’s Shelton Mitchell from scoring on the last play of the game. Graduate transfer Cam Johnson was a steadying presence with his six 3-pointers. Meanwhile, seniors Luke Maye and Kenny Williams both had a tough time finding their shooting touch for much of the game, but the two made game-changing plays down the stretch for UNC.
But all of that happened as Robinson had to adjust on the fly to Williams’ unexpected absence, which the UNC players said he handled flawlessly.
“This is the second time this has happened,” Robinson said, referencing a 2016 game at Boston College in which he had to take on the head-coaching duties after Williams suffered through a vertigo spell. “Like I told (Williams) I think the first time it happened, I’d like a little bit more advanced notice. That’s not an easy thing to do – pick up in the middle of the game and be able to manage our players and their emotions.”
And yet Robinson was able to do just that.
“Coach Rob talks to us every day, you know what I mean,” Johnson said. “It’s just one less voice with coach Williams not there, but we all respect coach Rob, and we all want to play hard for coach. We wanted to win the game just as bad – maybe even more so.”
For much of the game, nothing came easily on offense for UNC except for White’s jump shot. Thanks to his 17 first-half points, UNC took a four-point lead into halftime.
It initially looked like the Tar Heels might find things a bit easier in the second half as they led 46-37 at one point. But Clemson’s defense tightened up, and the Tar Heels struggled to find quality looks in their half-court set.
At the other end of the court, Clemson relied on a well-balanced scoring attack led by graduate guard Marcquise Reed (24 points) and led by as many as six with just over 11 minutes remaining.
That’s when the Tar Heels’ senior leadership took over.
After hitting the 100th 3-pointer of his career to make it a one-point game, Maye soon after scored three more the old-fashioned way to give the lead back to UNC.
Johnson, meanwhile, made the final of his six 3-pointers the most consequential, as he hit from deep with the shot clock about to expire to make it 75-68 with just over two minutes remaining. Kenny Williams scored all nine of his points in the final 8:12 and made 3 of 4 free throws in the final 12 seconds.
“Leadership,” Robinson said, when asked about what his most seasoned players provided. “Their experience of playing in big games, being on the road in hostile environment where you’ve got to play, you know?”
Kenny Williams thought the road win was satisfying for multiple reasons, one of them being the fact that nothing came easy – even for the coaching staff. He thought Robinson did a good job of running the team, saying “he’s an extension of Coach Williams.”
“They’re brothers,” Kenny Williams said of Robinson and Roy Williams. “If you were with them every day, you would see it. You’d be able to recognize it.”
That much became evident just a few minutes into the postgame news conference.
“Thirty-one years ago, one of the best decisions in my life was hiring this guy,” Roy Williams said about Robinson. “He’s been like a brother to me, like a best friend … couldn’t be more proud. I want him to have this feeling because he got them through with our players. I’m really proud.”
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