Thad: Perfect Senior Day

Phil Ford, move over. <br><br> The Rocky Mount point guard's Senior Day in 1978– a come-from-behind, 87-83 victory over an excellent Duke team–set the standard for how a beloved player should say good-bye to Chapel Hill, and was a constitutive event for a generation of Tar Heel fans.

Now the next generation of Carolina fans has a Senior Day to remember with equal affection, amazement, and sheer joy – a thrilling 75-73 victory over another outstanding Duke team, this one literally snatched from the jaws of defeat.

Yes, there have been other great Senior Day wins over Duke in the last 27 years, but when one considers both the full range of circumstances in this game – an ACC regular season title on the line, the long odyssey of Jackie Manuel, Melvin Scott, and Jawad Williams – as well as the sheer quality of the basketball played Sunday afternoon, this one takes the cake, by some distance.

A truly great basketball game takes two teams, and Duke deserves enormous credit for an outstanding Sunday afternoon – brilliantly executing the 4-around-1 offensive game plan, and making one terrific interior defensive play after another in the second half. The seemingly endless succession of blocked shots and strips on the inside clearly wore on North Carolina's confidence for a long stretch of the second half. The fact is, just one more stop or one more made 3 and Duke would have left Chapel Hill having pulled one over on Carolina yet again.

Fortunately, no one in light blue was willing to accept that outcome, even after falling behind by 9 points with just 3 minutes to play. Roy Williams admitted in the postgame press conference that he had to advise one of his main players not to hang his head at that point, and that word paid off when a third effort tap-in by Jawad Williams broke the skid and got Carolina back to within 73-66.

In the end game, Carolina was finally able to induce the refs to blow the whistle in the paint. Marvin Williams may play a long time before he gets as many shots packed as he did Sunday afternoon, but he drew just enough contact from Shelden Williams to get a whistle and a chance to cut the game to 73-68. The next trip down saw Sean May convert yet another second effort while being fouled to cut the game to two. Finally, Marvin Williams converted the game winner after Raymond Felton aggressively pursued his own missed free throw, a play highlighted by Roy Williams as one of the most remarkable of the afternoon.

Even after all that, it took the basketball gods, or perhaps the collective mental force of 21,000-plus Tar Heels, to keep J.J. Redick's long 3-point shot and Daniel Ewing's follow shot from falling. We all know Redick is capable of hitting that shot, but at least credit Carolina with making him take it from a good 25 feet out and with very little time to shoot. Perhaps more significantly, credit David Noel with a fantastic play in just barely getting a touch from behind on Ewing's dribble to create the turnover that gave Carolina a second chance to take the lead with 30 seconds to play.

But enough recounting (for now) – this is the kind of game an enterprising writer could pen an entire book about.

It's enough, right now, just to be dadgum happy (this Roy guy is wearing off on me) that this entire team has achieved one of its major goals: an ACC regular season title. Whatever happens in the postseason, no one will be able do deny this group that banner, which can now go up without the word "tie" anywhere to be seen.

It's also totally appropriate to stand in awe of Sean May's performance Sunday afternoon which without question will go down as one of the greatest – arguably the greatest – ever by a Carolina big man in a game of major consequence.

Above all, this game should restore to Carolina fans a sense that the arc of the universe does, in fact, bend towards justice: no group of Carolina players ever has deserved a finish like this so thoroughly as Jackie, Jawad, and Melvin.

Many recent media recountings of the senior trio's stay in Chapel Hill have resorted to a fair amount of sugar-coating and euphemism in describing the travails of Scott, Manuel, and Williams's first two seasons.

That's perfectly understandable, but to fully appreciate the magnitude of this Senior Day it is not inappropriate to recall a stark reality: that this group of players simply did not get the experience they bargained for or that was advertised to them, either on or off the court, during their first two years. You don't come to Chapel Hill as a basketball player to lose, and even more to the point, you don't put on the Carolina blue uniform expecting issues concerning the basic respect due any college student to become, day in and day out, a matter of serious doubt. Manuel and Williams were exercising the art of understatement in telling the victorious crowd after the game that "We've been through a lot."

Indeed, by the end of the 2002-03 season, these players owed the University of North Carolina exactly nothing. They could have kept their mouths shut, left town and let the institution's administration try to clean up the mess left behind, in perfectly good conscience.

What's amazing is that, somehow, these players became convinced that if they stuck together, kept their concerns and problems "in the family" throughout the course of the long 2002-03 season, and then expressed their concerns through appropriate institutional channels, that at the end of the day the institution would do right by them and do right by the program – even at the cost of serious short-term embarrassment for the university's leadership.

That is exactly what happened, painful as it was. Yet even as the university leadership was forced to admit that things had gone very, very wrong in the basketball program, another less-noticed side of the story also became evident: that despite going through numbing disappointments on the court and utterly exhausting experiences off of it, despite having every reason in the real world to leave Chapel Hill, this trio of players still saw things in their Chapel Hill experience that they loved, things that they didn't want to leave, things that made them think it was worth sticking around and trying to be part of putting things right.

For that fact, we can thank stable pillars and trusted advisers within the program such as Phil Ford, Burgess McSwain, and Marc Davis, for being there when the players needed them; we can thank the players' network of friends, family and loved ones; and above all, we can be thankful for these three players' relationships with one another and their other teammates.

None of this to say is that everything turned into the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow the moment Roy Williams told Dick Baddour ‘yes' – though I will never, ever forget Jawad Williams' beaming smile the night Williams was announced as Carolina's coach and told his new team they would be successful, and they would be shown respect. This group of players still had to learn what it really is to play fundamentally sound basketball, what it really is to be a team, and what it really is to trust your coaches.

That process – even now – still is not quite over, but no one can doubt the huge strides this team has made in every area, from shot selection to defensive help to crisp passing to accepting one's role. The fact that Carolina has been able to get the job done against four consecutive ACC opponents without the services of Rashad McCants, the player who so often in previous seasons single-handedly kept the Tar Heels in the game with his scoring, speaks volumes about the development of this club.

The truth is that there are no perfect teams. But sometimes, there are perfect days.

Let March 6, 2005 be etched in the hearts and minds of Tar Heel souls as one of them, a day to be remembered as long as basketball is played in Chapel Hill.


Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html. For an archive of some of Thad's best articles over the past decade, head to the Thad Williamson Archive. You can email Thad at thwilliamson(nospam)@earthlink.net.

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