If this headline slides across Roy Williams’ desk in the next few days, he'll probably wince at first glance.
Throughout his 33 seasons as leader of a college basketball team, the North Carolina men’s basketball coach has been a minister of team-first philosophy. So, it should come as no surprise that despite sitting one victory shy of the 900-win mark, the Hall of Famer spent the last week downplaying the potential accomplishment. Rather than looking ahead to the bigger picture, Williams simply stressed the importance of winning one game at a time to help lock the Tar Heels into the Big Dance.
But when the final buzzer sounded on Saturday evening, he could finally breathe a sigh of relief. After a 78-70 comeback victory over No. 11 Florida State, Williams etched his name into the record books, and the Tar Heels collected a signature victory that should all but seal their NCAA Tournament hopes.
“I've said it before, I'll look back on it one of these days and say, 'Hey, that was pretty neat,’” Williams said. “But I was focused on one thing: Trying to help this team get to 15 (wins this season).”
Despite his adamancy toward undermining the historic moment, it is impossible to deny what Williams has accomplished in his coaching career. Nine Final Fours, three national titles and, now, the fastest head coach in Division I history to reach 900 wins, doing so in only 1,161 games. If he collects three more, he'll pass Bob Knight for third all-time.
“It feels great to be a part of his legacy,” first-year Kerwin Walton said. “I’m just hoping to win more games and be a part of his championship teams.”
Such a night would have hardly been a possibility with the absence of the 3000-plus fans that filed into the Dean E. Smith Center for the first time all season. Following a near-year-long hiatus, the UNC faithful could jump around and show appreciation for the new crop of talent that has attempted to make last year’s 14-19 campaign a distant memory.
Aside from a few early cheers when the Tar Heels scored the first five points of the game, the energetic atmosphere couldn't be felt in the first half. Florida State – the leaders of the ACC – stifled UNC’s offense, holding the team to just 25 percent shooting while forcing 14 turnovers in the opening 20 minutes.
But after halftime, UNC came out energized, and the fans poured their support onto the hardwood. Suddenly, the Seminoles’ passing lanes became tighter, and the Tar Heels capitalized on 12 Florida State turnovers to ignite the fast break and get easy looks inside.
“I think our energy changed coming out of halftime,” first-year guard RJ Davis said. “We had to come together as a group, but having the fans there made a big difference.”
If there was one main beneficiary of the fan experience, it was first-year Walker Kessler, who scored a career-high 20 points on 9-10 shooting.
Kessler – who has largely been an afterthought in UNC’s deep frontcourt rotation – started the second half and erupted for 14 points in 12 minutes. Once he began to hit his stride, the walls of the home arena thunderously echoed his name.
“I was at a loss for words,” Kessler said. “Playing for a historic program in a historic arena is pretty cool. I would recommend it to those who haven’t experienced it.”
On any other night, this would be Kessler's coming of age game, the breakout performance that leaves fans salivating over his potential.
But it wasn't just any old evening conference game.
Feb. 27, 2021, is — and always will be — Roy Williams' night.
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