Jackson Simmons entered the game with 2:03 to play before halftime, subbing in for Brice Johnson. Twenty-four seconds later, the junior forward was diving on the floor to save a loose ball, eventually finding Kennedy Meeks underneath the basket for a layup to cut UNC's deficit from 15 points down to five.
That specific play epitomizes Roy Williams’s charge to his bench: “Do something that will help our team win. Make the smallest deed be the biggest deed in the very end.”
Simmons shared his head coach’s philosophy over the boisterous noise resonating in UNC’s postgame locker room at the Tucker Center. Despite a disastrous start, the Tar Heels rallied to win their seventh-straight game and push their ACC record to 8-4.
Williams acknowledged in his postgame press conference that his team didn’t win its share of 50-50 balls for most of the game, but his players rose to the occasion at opportune times.
With Florida State in the midst of a 7-0 run to slice UNC’s lead to 70-69 with 2:58 to play, a mad scramble for the ball on the next possession bounced into J.P. Tokoto’s hands and the sophomore wing’s ensuing dunk pushed his team’s lead back to three points.
When Ian Miller missed a 3-pointer on the other end, it appeared as though 7-foot-1, 292-pound Michael Ojo would corral the rebound. Nate Britt - all 5-foot-11, 165 pounds of him – had other plans, working into position for ball and colliding with Ojo mid-air.
Not only did Britt survive the altercation, but Ojo was also called for his fifth foul. Kennedy Meeks scored on UNC’s next possession to increase the margin to five points with 1:43 to play.
“Early on in the season, we weren’t making the winning plays like that,” Tokoto said. “… We have guys that are willing to come in, and guys that are already in, willing to make those hustle plays to get extra possession that help win games.”
While Tokoto termed his scoop and dunk a “lucky” play, there’s plenty of value in being in the right spot at the right time. Luck tends to find the prepared person.
By playing with the sense of urgency that has become this team’s apparent motto – rarely does a press conference go by without Williams uttering that phrase – the Tar Heels put themselves in position to win those 50-50 balls.
And, as Monday night proved, winning those plays can prove essential in close games down the stretch, especially for a team that does itself no favors at the free throw line.
“The way we played today, with that sense of urgency, is how you’re supposed to play in February and March,” Simmons said. “Those teams that win at the very end, that’s what they have. Coach has been preaching since September that we have to be one of the best teams that get the 50-50 balls. We’re starting to hit our stride with that and we’ve got to keep going with it.”