Roy Williams offered the only explanation he could muster to open his postgame press conference following UNC’s 79-65 victory at the Breslin Center.
“I don’t know, I don’t know and I don’t know.”
In a span of 17 days, UNC lost at home to Belmont by three points, upset No. 3 Louisville by nine to claim the Hall of Fame Tip-Off tournament title, lost to UAB on the road by four and then knocked off the top-ranked Spartans in convincing fashion.
As bad as UNC was on the boards in Birmingham, it was 180 degrees better in East Lansing. The Tar Heels outrebounded the Spartans, 49-38, and dominated every other statistical category worth mentioning. UNC outscored MSU in points in the paint (44-28), points off turnovers (19-7), second-chance points (19-10) and bench points (31-17).
UNC needed a career performance from Marcus Paige to upset the Cardinals in Connecticut, but midway through the second half on Wednesday, the sophomore guard and junior forward James Michael McAdoo were a combined 6-of-22 from the floor. And the Tar Heels still led by double digits.
“You can’t tell in college basketball what’s going to happen,” Williams said. “I looked out there today, at one time I had three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior on the court. We don’t have our senior traveling with us. You understand that kids are going to do some wacko things and you hope you do enough good ones on game night.”
While Williams acknowledged that his team’s morale has paralleled the highs and lows, the resilience of youth has allowed his players to bounce back after each of the crushing losses.
“Bad things they get rid of in a half hour,” Williams said. “And coaches, we live with UAB for 72 hours or however long it is to the next game. So 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds get rid of bad things a lot quicker. They enjoyed the Louisville game. They didn’t enjoy the UAB game… But you just can’t depend on their emotions. You’ve got to keep pushing them to try to do it all of the time.”
UNC’s first half provided a microcosm to its roller coaster ride of a season with a dominant start paired with a troubling finish.
The Tar Heels were aggressive on both ends, attacking the rim offensively while preventing open looks for the Spartans on the other end. With 11:17 to play, UNC led 20-6 behind a 13-6 (7-3 OR) rebound edge. The Tar Heels were only shooting 41.2 percent (7-of-17, but were holding Michigan State to 18.2 percent on 2-of-11 shooting.
As the game clock ticked down, however, the Spartans found some rhythm on offense and tightened up defensively on the interior. As a result, UNC’s offense became stagnant and the quality looks that were prevalent in the early going vanished.
Following Nate Britt’s layup to give UNC a 30-19 lead with 6:39 to play before halftime, the Tar Heels missed seven of their last eight shots and committed turnovers on four of their final six possessions. UNC didn’t convert a field goal attempt in the final 5:04, which helped fuel Michigan State’s 13-2 run to tie the game at 32-all at the break.
The Tar Heels maintained their level of play during the entire second half, which is the necessary approach in carrying this momentum forward through the holiday season.
“We’re still getting there,” said Paige, who posted 13 points and five assists. “We’re learning. This is a big step for us and hopefully we can try to understand that consistency is going to pay off for us when we get to ACC play.”
No one on the podium or in the locker room, though, could offer insightful reasoning for how a team with its best player watching the games from Chapel Hill could pull off a pair of monumental upsets following a pair of dud performances.
On Wednesday night, all that mattered was UNC’s 13th all-time win over a top-ranked opponent.
“It’s just crazy that we won just now,” Kennedy Meeks said. “I can’t explain it.”