Garrison Brooks was not North Carolina’s leading scorer on Saturday night.
The senior forward had 14 points in the win against Duke, which was behind Caleb Love, Armando Bacot and Kerwin Walton. They all had 18.
He wasn’t the team’s leading rebounder, either. That was Bacot.
In 25 minutes, the Preseason ACC Player of the Year notched just five boards to go along with three assists, a block and no steals. Taken as a whole, Brooks' stat line versus the Blue Devils was a solid, if unremarkable, one. The kind of game we’ve come to expect from him this season.
Make no mistake, though. It was his night.
Yes, it was Senior Night, so in the most obvious possible sense, it was his night. That much was clear pregame, during a tearful midcourt commemoration and standing ovation from the Dean E. Smith Center crowd.
"He said before the game he knew he was going to be emotional," Bacot said. "It was just funny to see Garrison, the tough guy, crying."
And it was clear postgame, during Brooks' senior video, in which he individually thanked every member of the UNC staff.
“Coach (Roy) Williams, you’ve given me the opportunity of a lifetime,” he said. “You gave a kid from Lafayette, Alabama the chance to live out his dream and play for North Carolina.”
In between those two moments, however, was a systematic — and yes, Brooksian — dismantling of the Blue Devils, in which the Tar Heels out-shot, out-rebounded and out-worked their rival en route to a 91-73 statement victory.
There was a certain lunch pail quality to the team's performance. It was a tip-to-buzzer effort in which North Carolina jumped out to an 18-4 lead and never looked back. Like their senior leader in a postgame press conference, the Tar Heels were short, direct and to the point.
Score a bucket. Get a stop. Rinse, repeat.
In a semi-filled and brightly-lit Dean Dome, shades of Brooks seemed to be everywhere.
Would it be too cliché or on the nose to suggest it was Brooks who set the tone for the night, scoring the Tar Heels’ first bucket of the game on a jump hook inside?
Or that just as Duke started to grab some momentum, the forward snatched it right back with a step-back, late-shot clock, hand-in-his face 3-pointer midway through the first half?
Or that when the Blue Devils went to a full-court press late, there was Brooks, the inbounder/press breaker/steady hand, to guide UNC to the win?
Yet there's more than that. Yes, there were moments in-game, but it's been understood all season — by way of his teammates — that much of Brooks' impact comes behind the scenes. To hear them tell it, he's the first hand to pick you up when you fall, the first to put a coach's harsh words in context, the first to encourage you after a two for 11 night. In short, he's the emotional linchpin of the team.
"I couldn't even look at Garrison today when he came to shake my hand pregame," Williams said. "I had to just slap him on the butt and say, 'Play, big fella.'"
How fitting, then, that when the final buzzer sounded the first two to embrace were Williams and Brooks, tears streaming down the latter's face, his journey — from lost first-year to upperclassman leader to now, finally, North Carolina senior — nearly complete.
Brooks himself was, predictably, reluctant to dwell too much on the night.
"We can't get too happy," he said. "Enjoy this until Sunday, then we'll come back and be ready to work again."
But months, years, decades from now, his last game against Duke will — or at least should — be a big part of his mental scrapbook.
Not every Tar Heel gets his moment in the postseason sun. Brooks has never played for a national title, missed the (canceled) NCAA Tournament entirely last year and will likely enter it as a double-digit seed this year.
For him, though, maybe one memorable Senior Night will be enough.
@DTHSports | email@example.com
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