Now it's been a long time since I've read my Sophocles and Homer, but I'd submit that the Tar Heels have had all the makings of a gripping classical drama these last few months. You've got the young Matt Doherty struggling mightily to define himself and his program in the face of strong tradition and the ever-present authority and stature of Dean Smith. Think Oedipus without the Freudian nonsense. Then, speaking of young heroes, you've got Carolina's freshmen and sophomores, battling high expectations, an extraordinarily difficult schedule, and occasionally the whims of the gods -- how else do you explain Sean May's broken foot -- on their epic quest for the NCAA Tournament. And if the Smith Center isn't the modern day equivalent of an amphitheater, what is?
This drama even has its own version of the Greek chorus. With Carolina's fans freely expressing their opinions in every available forum, from radio talk show to internet bulletin board, there has been plenty of the running commentary that I remember as a hallmark -- an occasionally annoying hallmark -- of those old plays I had to read in high school and college.
All this thinking about the classics brings me to catharsis, that excellent Greek word meaning "to cleanse or purge." Or as Webster's puts it: "a purification or purgation that brings about spiritual renewal or release from tension."
To me, catharsis is the one word summation of all that occurred in Carolina basketball last week.
Let's start with the tension. Tuesday, as the Tar Heels entered their matchup with Clemson, there was plenty of stress in the air. For starters, there was a nagging fear that if the Tigers were primed to win their first ever in Chapel Hill, this would be the year. With Edward Scott near the top of the league in scoring, and the Tigers boasting their usual assortment of bruising inside players, things looked a little iffy going in. They looked even more iffy in the second half as Clemson briefly took a six point lead and then battled the Heels right to the last play of the game. But Carolina pulled it out in dramatic fashion to keep "The Streak" alive for another year.
Nevertheless, as satisfying as the win was to some, there were more than a few voices -- some fans and some in the media -- suggesting all was not well. Attention focused on the mercurial Rashad McCants, rightly or wrongly assumed to be the emotional barometer of the team. During the Clemson game, McCants offered a microcosm of the Tar Heels' roller-coaster ride through the previous weeks, starting high as a kite as Carolina ran out to a blistering start, then storming to the bench with foul trouble and refusing to acknowledge his coaches or teammates as they tried to offer encouragement, and finally hitting several big shots in the closing minutes to help hold off the Tigers' rally.
Normally one would have seen in this miniature drama nothing more than the joys and frustrations of any young star in the making. If the only tension around UNC dealt with "The Streak," this might have held true. But there was also "The Rumor," or rumors plural, cast into sharp relief by what quickly has quickly become known in Chapel Hill as "The Article."
If you're a regular reader of this column, you are probably the kind of person who has already read Saturday's piece in the Raleigh News & Observer six times in both directions, so there is no need to repeat its contents. Suffice to say that several of its quotes from players, and more notably from players' parents, only added fuel to the fires of those who have believed that all is not well around the program, while it served as further evidence for others of an unjust vendetta against Doherty and his program. No matter which side -- if any -- you are inclined to take in this debate, this much is certain: the article appeared only to increase tensions around the program and fan base.
Except, strangely, as everyone gathered at the Smith Center for Saturday evening's tilt with sixth-ranked Connecticut, the air seeemed clearer. Suddenly the rumored strife between Doherty and his players was out in the open. Pointed questions about earlier suggestions of a narrowly averted player walkout resulted in clear answers that such a walkout never happened, and was not about to happen. With a candor that is nothing short of remarkable, players and coaches went on record about the difficulty of adjusting to one another's styles, yet in the end they confirmed a fundamental belief that they would work it out together.
Not all the statements in the article were pretty. One would much rather have seen ringing endorsements from the players' parents, for instance, than the frank assessments of a situation that remains highly fluid. But in the honesty was a breath of fresh air, some desperately needed perspective. The truth is, college basketball is a grind, even in the best of circumstances. And as we've established, the fates haven't always been kind to this young Tar Heel team. So things have been hard, and may get harder before they get easier. But you can almost hear the chorus asking rhetorically, "What else did you expect?"
With the purging complete, coaches, players, and fans alike could focus on the task at hand, and focus they did. The result was the most satisfying victory in the Smith Center in well over a year -- a stunning win over Connecticut that boasted a little bit of everything, from flashes of offensive brilliance to hard-nosed defense and a clutch basket by Jawad Williams that was reminiscent of the Tar Heels' greatest moments.
You could see the difference on the court, from Carolina's red-hot 23-4 run to open the game, to McCants's exhortations to the crowd for more noise, to several gentle moments of quick coaching between Doherty and his players on the sidelines. As UConn crept back steadily into the game, there was no evidence of players coming apart, and no other sideshows to distract from what was an incredible game. There was simply a team, beginning to believe in each other and the lessons they have learned over several difficult weeks. There was Raymond Felton, looking David Noel in the eyes as the latter player came into the game, and saying simply but intensely, "Let's go." In his seven minutes, Noel responded with two key three-pointers off the bench . There was Byron Sanders slashing down the lane, taking a pass from McCants confidently, and hitting the layup as he was fouled for another crucial three-point play. And there was Williams, shaking off a quiet offensive game and demanding the ball with the game on the line, leading his teammates to victory. All the while, more than 21,000 fans screamed and cheered in chorus, and when the final buzzer sounded and the students rushed the court, the catharsis was complete.
Sometimes basketball is a Greek tragedy, but on Saturday it was just a game. A wonderful, exhilerating game.
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