"Flying was pretty cool," Leslie McDonald said, before adding, "until the landing. It was a little slippery."
After the slide down the runway, the basic sequence that took UNC from Hartsfield Jackson International Airport to its team hotel is rather well understood. The squad's scheduled bus couldn't make it south of town to pick them up and shuttle them to their Midtown Atlanta hotel. Therefore, a large group of Carolina Blue clad basketball players hopped onto the only mode of transportation available in a city frozen solid. The team took Atlanta's sparse rail system, MARTA, into the city. From there, though, the reports start to vary a bit. Kennedy Meeks laughed and said the walk was "cold" before Marcus Paige could chime in with "real, real cold" from his spot next to Meeks in the locker room. Meeks estimated the trip took the team 45 minutes before arriving at the hotel.
Roy Williams seemed to take into account the struggles of a city that saw school children sleep in classrooms and motorists sleep on the highway as he measured his comments about the team's trip south. "We rode the MARTA and carried our own bags instead of having a nice, comfortable bus," he explained, "and then somebody said we walked six blocks - you know if we walked six blocks I was surprised. I walked it myself and carried two bags and I didn't think it was that far - more like two or three. It was a tough situation in Atlanta. I would not have said one thing about it if we had lost because we were so much more fortunate than all those other people out there."
Typically, 90 minutes before a basketball game at Georgia Tech, the parking lot for Turner Studios where The NBA on TNT and NBA TV originate, is overflowing with Yellow Jackets fans as they make their way just across 10th Street to McCamish Pavilion. Even an hour before tip, though, that four-story parking deck was virtually empty aside from the brave -- and in some cases stranded -- employees of Turner Broadcasting, including former Tar Heel Rick Fox and former Yellow Jacket Dennis Scott, who were in the studio to discuss the night's NBA action as their schools did battle not more than 100 yards away.
With frozen roads on a large number of surface streets creating still treacherous driving conditions, very few seemed to be making the trek by car. In fact, inside the arena, 30 minutes before tip, the general consensus was that this would be the lowest attended ACC game in years, and with road conditions set to worsen, there was no evidence to doubt that claim.
Then, with 15 minutes to go before tip, things changed quickly. Georgia Tech opened the gates for free admission to anyone that would dare show up. Students poured in. Georgia Tech tallied just over 5,000 seats across the arena were ultimately occupied. Sean Kerwin, one of the Yellow Jackets' regular cameramen, said just before tip, "The student section is as full as I've ever seen it, but there are a lot more Carolina people here too."
Indeed, the majority of the section going all the way up to the upper deck behind UNC's bench wore Carolina Blue. John Dameron, a 1985 North Carolina graduate who had tickets to the game, said of the free admission, "It's great, I can sit anywhere I want." Just after halftime, inside the arena, a minority of hearty Tar Heel supporters were so vocal that the "Tar… Heel" chant began back and forth across McCamish Pavilion just to the right of a largely unfilled press section. Tech students responded quickly to try and drown it out.
After the win, in UNC's loose and happy locker room, several of the UNC players saw this trip as a chance to grow as a team. "It's been crazy," Meeks said. "Snow everywhere …. it was pretty cold. But we are more fortunate than others. We bonded together and we took advantage of that."
Paige laughingly responded to a question about the last 24 hours before detailing some possible benefits for the North Carolina team downstream. "Oh, my goodness," he began, "that's a trip I'm not going to forget. We had some interesting travels, but I think it brought everyone closer together. We had a really fun time just hanging out and spending time on the train and whatnot - in random parts of Atlanta. It was a great trip and to cap it off with a win makes it better so now we can be happy on the way home… if we go home."
The Tar Heels did, in fact, go home, boarding a late night flight back to Carolina – bringing with them a memorable experience and, most importantly, a much-needed win.
Top photo courtesy Brice Johnson. Bottom photo courtesy Jones Angell.