The ongoing eligibility saga that’s hovered over the UNC program over the past six months recently reached a tipping point for Roy Williams, which he explained following Saturday’s win over Richmond.
“I had to remind the team of it the other day because I think we’re still looking over our shoulder wondering when the cavalry is going to come back,” he said. “And I told them we’ve got to play with who we have right now. And if the cavalry does show up, then it might strengthen us. If they don’t show up, we still have to play.”
As influential as Williams’s words may be, nothing solidifies a belief more than action on the court. The Tar Heels needed a reason to stop looking over their collective shoulders; they got it in the form of a resounding 93-84 victory over the defending champs that turned into a rout midway through the second half.
“Defending national champions, No. 3 team in the country – it doesn’t get much bigger than a game like today,” James Michael McAdoo said following the win. “To come out with the win is definitely huge for our confidence, knowing what we’re capable of doing. If we get those guys back, we’ll just continue to add more weapons.”
That UNC kept the game close at all could have been seen as encouraging when you consider that Louisville’s backcourt tandem of Russ Smith and Chris Jones combined for 56 points and that McAdoo was held to nine points on 3-of-11 shooting.
After the Cardinals jumped out to a 19-10 lead behind 87.5 percent shooting (7-of-8), UNC increased its defensive intensity and held its opponent to 32.2 percent (19-59) over the final 34:05.
And while Marcus Paige put his name on All-American watch lists with a career-high 32 points on 9-of-12 shooting, various Tar Heels stepped up at different times to provide needed boosts.
Kennedy Meeks (13 points, 12 rebounds, 7 assists) was as effective under the basket scoring as he was throwing outlet ropes for a quartet of assists, and Brice Johnson (13 pts, 5 rebs) delivered his standard scoring punch off the bench despite foul trouble.
Nate Britt did his part in handling Louisville’s pressure defense, Joel James scored five points and grabbed six rebounds in 11 minutes and Jackson Simmons slid in front of Montrezl Harrell for a critical charge to foul the Cardinal big man out with 7:27 to play.
UNC needed heavy doses of poise and effort mixed in with players making plays to pull the upset, and that’s exactly what the Tar Heels delivered.
“I just felt very good about our team,” Williams said following Sunday’s win. “It’s 180 degrees away from everybody in that locker room and what they felt like last week. We knew we had to play our best. We couldn’t play anything less than the best in order to win this game. We didn’t talk too much about winning; we talked about playing a whole heck of a lot better. I think we did play a heck of a lot better.”
In doing so, UNC secured its first win over a team ranked No. 3 or higher since defeating No. 3 Ohio State, 98-89, in Chapel Hill on Nov. 29, 2006.
“We just wanted to come here with the mindset that we can change our season and we can get back in that right mind frame where we’re one of the best teams in the country if we play together and play hard,” Paige said.
The road to the Final Four would be much more accessible with Hairston and McDonald on the roster. Sunday’s performance, however, proved that the NCAA Tournament is a possible destination even without that tandem.