A mental lapse. A breakdown in communication. An instance of absentmindedness.
However you want to phrase it, Roy Williams had a moment of forgetfulness. During a timeout with about 12 seconds remaining in regulation and the lead at 70-67, the North Carolina men's basketball head coach said he forgot to remind his players to foul to prevent a 3-point attempt from Clemson in Saturday's eventual 79-76 loss to the Tigers.
“That loss is my fault," Williams said. "No question, no doubt in my mind.”
The result of Williams' error was a successful 3-pointer from Clemson's Aamir Simms that tied the score at 70 with a little over three seconds remaining in regulation. The Tigers would go on to win in overtime, snapping UNC's 59-game home winning streak against Clemson and preventing Williams from passing Dean Smith for third place on the NCAA's Division I all-time wins list.
But years before Williams amassed hundreds of wins to even put himself in that conversation, when he was in just his first season as the head coach at Kansas, his Jayhawks conceded a late game-tying 3-pointer against Kansas State. The UNC head coach explained that since that game, he has always believed in fouling to prevent a shot from behind the arc in similar situations and he's always communicated that to his players for decades.
It was a mental mistake that left Williams fighting back tears in the minutes following the loss.
“Guys, I didn’t remind them," Williams said. "I’d tell (athletic director Bubba Cunningham) he should probably fire me, and it probably wouldn’t be a bad idea. A coach is supposed to help his kids. I didn’t help them very much.”
The North Carolina head coach added that the loss was probably his lowest moment as a coach.
But none of his players shared that sentiment with their mentor.
“I respect it and understand what he meant," Garrison Brooks said. "But we didn’t make plays and turned the ball over a lot. That’s it. He wasn’t out there turning the ball over.”
Junior guard Andrew Platek, who got the first start of his career after UNC announced that Jeremiah Francis would sit out with knee soreness, agreed.
"He’s the best coach in America, and we love him to death," Platek said. "We all played our asses off today and made mistakes that aren’t his fault. He’s not out there playing, he’s not scoring the points, he’s not shooting the shots.”
Even after scoring a career-high 27 points on 9-17 shooting from the field, including two clutch free throws right before the game-tying shot from the Tigers, senior guard Brandon Robinson admitted that he would've traded all of his heroics in for a win.
“It falls back on me, too," Robinson said. "I’ve been here for four years. I gotta communicate that to the team. That’s why a lot of this is my fault.”
It's very easy for recency bias to take over, and for people to believe that a mistake in the closing minutes cost the Tar Heels a win. But one realization became clear during postgame interviews; nobody took the loss, and the ensuing blame that comes with it, as hard as the UNC head coach.
Midway through Williams' response to the final question of his interview, the visiting locker room erupted with cheers and shouts of joy that carried through the walls and into the press conference room. The North Carolina head coach slowed his speech and addressed the noise before the interview ended.
“That's a good sound," he said. "I'm happy for Brad (Brownell) and his team. My team would’ve had a better chance of doing that if I had reminded them.”
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