Beyond them, more than 20,000 witnesses ran their own internal documentary systems, surely thinking about how they'll tell future generations of Tar Heel fans that they were present. Some might remember the moment coming at 7:41, a tick of a second later than the actual basket, when the game clock was stopped for a tastefully brief ceremony and the obligatory photo op. Let the record show their memories were wrong, but it won't diminish the telling and retelling until history becomes legend, as it usually does.
Often history happens in quieter places, witnessed by fewer people, not fully appreciated or understood until much later. But this episode was not left for chance. It had been anticipated for months, ever since Carolina's lunch-bucket All-American decided to return for his senior season -- not because he cared a lick about breaking Phil Ford's almost 30-year-old record, but because he loves student life on campus, loves basketball, and wanted to keep doing both at the same time as long as possible. The only hitch in the script was a sore shin and a twisted ankle that deferred the night for a few weeks, into late December, an early Christmas gift to the faithful who filled (well, almost filled) the Smith Center on a misty night.
Everything else followed the script nicely. ESPN dutifully ensured a national audience would share the moment on television. Then Hansbrough's father, Gene, made his surprise arrival at a game he wasn't expected to attend. But how could he miss it, really? Having nurtured his son's talent and his competitive drive and his character and everything else along the way, history demanded he be in his seat, ready to stand and salute his son as he swallowed down the lump in his throat and expressed his love and thanks.
Evansville proved the story's perfect villain, keeping it close through the early stages, and giving an already charged-up crowd opportunity to boo lustily as the Purple Aces' physical big men knocked Hansbrough to the ground on several occasions. Didn't they know that's how Hansbrough would have wanted it -- physically challenged, and therefore determined to crush them into submission?
Ford, meanwhile, made a gentlemanly entrance, gracefully shook hands with fans of all ages, posed for pictures, and waited in the wings for history to arrive. After it did, he was pure class, thanking Roy Williams, Hansbrough, and the university for asking him to be a part of the night. "It's a dream come true for me," he said, sounding genuinely honored to be passing the torch to a player who, like him, gave his best for the program and properly understands that team success, not individual records, are the real measure of success.
Even with the game underway and subject to unpredictable bounces, an official's phantom call, or some other twist of fate, the script held. The first points came from the foul line, swishing through the basket without a doubt, as they have more often than for any other Carolina player before him. One reminder of greatness in the books.
The next points rapidly followed on a series of jumpers, well beyond the range of anything doubters expected the brawling forward to hit on a regular basis when he was a freshman. "I'll prove you wrong," you could almost hear him thinking as he hit each one, showcasing the senior's evolution into a complete player. Another reminder: players like this come along only once in a generation.
Then there was the struggle, as teammates worked to get him the ball in scoring position. Having told everyone he wanted to break the record on a three, he camped out on the wing for one possession but failed to get a touch. On another, he posted hard inside as Danny Green took and missed an open three; as the Heels ran to the other end, Williams appeared to holler at Green for failing to look inside first. On this night, with history looming, even good quality shots needed to wait for the moment. But the struggle was needed, too. Hasn't that been the essence of Carolina's working-class hero: the battler, scrapping for everything, finding success as much through passion as through athletic ability or skill? It took will -- and a brief stint on the bench -- before the moment came. Then, sure as sure, it did.
Because it did, a number of things will be quickly forgotten. Though Tywon Lawson had another dominant performance and Danny Green (who broke a milestone of his own with his 1,000th career point) showcased the increasingly confident game that makes his summer draft experiment seem less surprising, the Tar Heels grinded their way through a game with 16 turnovers -- two more than Evansville -- and only 17 assists. Deon Thompson never established a rhythm, taken out of his finesse game by the Purple Aces' physical style. Early in the second half, Williams yanked out all five starters and replaced them with a Blue Team, unhappy with the focus and effort. And Wayne Ellington's shooting slump continued, his normally perfect stroke disconcertingly slow to return from the finals break. It was another double-digit win, and against a quality mid-major opponent, but a work of art it wasn't.
Hansbrough, who looked as though he was pressing all night despite finishing with another 20-point, 9-rebound performance, admitted to the nerves. They were particularly evident on his next touch after the record-breaking points, when Hansbrough stole an inbounds pass, only to brick a dunk attempt off the back of the rim -- another moment that will probably be erased as history gives way to legend. "I felt like there was a lot of pressure," he said. "I didn't want to strictly focus on the scoring record. We had a game and I was trying to do whatever I could to help the team. Now I'm glad it's over, and I'm ready to move on."
Williams agreed. "I said, ‘I'm glad we got that behind us, now let's focus on playing better, and let's focus on guarding somebody…. I don't look up at the scoreboard, but it was the first time that I can ever remember counting points in my head. So when [the shot] goes in, it was immediately a feeling of elation, and [then] a feeling of relief that we got that out of the way."
Danny Green acknowledged the team was ready to move on as well. "Yeah, definitely," he said. "The one record we want to break is the winning record, going undefeated for an entire season and hopefully getting a national championship. That's the record I want to achieve."
History will remember this night, the emotions of the tribute video that followed the game, and the warmth of the celebratory laughter in the media room. But in the locker room, business remained. And in a brief quote that will probably be lost to memory, Phil Ford told the real story of the night in words that will echo until winter turns to spring. "When I was coach here, if we didn't make the Final Four, it was a bad season," he said. "And now, this guy," he continued, looking to Hansbrough, "if he doesn't win a national title, he has a bad season." Hansbrough didn't flinch, but the eyes flashed with recognition.
The record is set, but history is still waiting.