Freshman forward Harrison Barnes admits the Tar Heels were not always sure they could persevere.
"It's been a struggle," Barnes said. "We definitely had times where we didn't think we could do it, but now we're in this position, and we've just got to seize the moment."
UNC head coach Roy Williams never gave up on his players.
"I just preached the whole year: 'Let's try to do everything we can to get better,'" Williams said. "With each little step as you get this late in the season I've been congratulating them, saying we can do more. We always have big-time dreams, and big-time goals. It's been a long time. I've been telling these guys that it's okay to have those big-time dreams and those big-time goals. I think they're quite realistic for us."
The Tar Heels have been knocked down, but like a rugged boxer they have always answered the bell and risen from the ashes of adversity to now have an opportunity to win the ACC regular season championship outright.
Sunday night's 87-76 victory against Maryland (18-11, 7-7 ACC) put the quill in the hands of the Tar Heels to scribe their own story. Wednesday's game in Tallahassee against the ACC's third-place team in Florida State (20-8, 10-4 ACC) and Saturday's regular season finale against No. 1 Duke (26-3, 12-2 ACC) are the only hurdles standing in between Carolina and a conference crown.
Williams says the keys to achieving this big-time goal are to be extremely focused, extremely driven and willing to pay that price every day. His players have bought into it, most importantly his floor general, freshman point guard Kendall Marshall.
"Coach told us after our first two losses in Puerto Rico that we had a chance to be a great team," Marshall said. "Defensively we started getting stops, offensively we're still making improvements, and I think we have yet to play our best basketball. We just want to focus on the future, and get the best out of ourselves, and winning."
UNC's future hinges on what happens this week. The Tar Heels are a lock for the NCAA Tournament after missing the dance last season, but how they perform against the Seminoles and Blue Devils will make the difference in being a No. 1 seed or dropping to a No. 3 seed for the ACC Tournament next week in Greensboro, N.C.
Here are the possible scenarios:
Junior forward Tyler Zeller is careful not to look too far ahead.
- North Carolina beats Florida State and Duke, winning the conference outright, and getting the top seed in next week's ACC Tournament.
- The Tar Heels lose to Florida State, but beat Duke and get the top seed in the ACC Tournament, thanks to their 1-1 record over the Seminoles. The ACC's first tiebreaker after head-to-head meetings is the record against the next highest team in the conference standings. UNC defeated Florida State, 89-69, on Feb. 6, while the Blue Devils lost their only meeting to the Seminoles, 56-51, on Jan. 12.
- UNC beats the Seminoles, but loses to Duke, and get the No. 2 seed.
- North Carolina loses both games, but Florida State falls to N.C. State, so the Tar Heels earn the No. 2 seed.
- The Tar Heels lose both games, Florida State beats the Wolfpack, and Carolina ends up as the No. 3 seed.
"We've got to get through Florida State Wednesday first," Zeller said. "We're just taking it one game at a time, and hopefully Saturday we can say we did all we could to win it."
Florida State is not the same team the Tar Heels throttled on Super Bowl Sunday. Seminoles' leading scorer and rebounder Chris Singleton is out with a foot injury, so the tendency for a young team could be to look past the Seminoles and to the Blue Devils. But if the Tar Heels know anything, it is how to respond to adversity and how to fight when their backs are against the wall.
Alabama transfer Justin Knox is eager to remind his young teammates to keep their eyes on the prize.
"Just try to keep reminding guys how close we are to the end of the season, how easily we can lose these last two games if we don't stay focused," Knox said. "So just keeping that in guys' minds about how you got to take advantage of the opportunity we have right now, try to just stay on top and win the conference."
Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton's group is 12-2 at home this season. The bell is ringing, and it's up to Carolina to answer.