On Tuesday night at the RBC Center, though, the North Carolina coach worked some magic during a rare timeout early in the second half, and the outcome was the Tar Heels’ best stretch in eons and a comfortable 77-63 victory at N.C. State.
Snapping an ugly three-game losing streak and notching their first true road win of the season could develop into a turning point for the Heels, or it may just be a one-game deal. But what matters most, as of now, is that Williams said the right words and his team responded. Given that hasn’t been the norm – especially the latter - this is a promising step forward.
“That gives coaching too much credit,” Williams said when asked what he told his team three minutes into the second half.
“We made silly mistakes, which was the reason I called the timeout… I just wanted to make them mad at me or something. I yelled at them for a little bit (thinking) if they get mad at me maybe they will go ahead and focus on playing the game.”
Being humble is often a virtue, but the reality is Williams’ words resonated within his team.
“He told us to fight,” Will Graves said. “They had knocked us back a little bit after halftime, and he told us to go knock them back. It was pretty simple, really, and it worked.”
That’s a point about this 13-7 UNC squad. Simplicity hasn’t been a regular thing. It has often seemed like if there was a way the Tar Heels could turn a fairly easy play into a difficult one they would. And when the opponent has played well, Carolina hasn’t always matched their intensity.
Passion isn’t a talent; it’s something that comes from within. Some athletes exude it more frequently than others, and on this night the entire UNC team caught the intensity bug, especially after the tongue-lashing by their Hall of Fame coach.
UNC missed its first nine shot attempts in the second half, including its initial six after the timeout, and fell behind 43-38. But the Heels started disrupting the Woflpack’s offense, and defense began leading to offense, and then their halfcourt sets worked to near perfection. Thirteen minutes later, Carolina was at the back end of a 28-6 run in which State converted just 1-of-18 field goal attempts.
Blame State for some poor shooting and questionable shot selection, but also credit the suddenly-feisty Heels for their effort, as well.
“We showed we had a sense of urgency and we showed that we wanted it, especially on the defensive end,” said Graves, who grabbed nine rebounds and expressed disappointment – albeit wearing a smile – that he didn’t snag a 10th.
“This was an uprising for our defense, our challenge was to show we can do it on defense and we should do it every night.”
If so, then Larry Drew can expect to hear more rowdy locker rooms like the one he talked about in the bowels of the RBC Center. He hadn’t heard such happy chatter in a while, but there was a reason on this night.
“We were definitely out there having fun, just hooping it,” he said.
Hooping it up is something Williams’ teams have done for most of his 22 years and what UNC has been about for a century. But too often, this Carolina club hasn’t looked like most of those people have grown accustomed to watching. Some have even called them imposters, which was a bit over the top.
Nevertheless, if UNC is to get back to being the same old Carolina, it needed a launching point. And a rare early timeout from a man who despises using them could have been that spark.
“Tonight, definitely I think we looked like North Carolina,” said senior Deon Thompson, who knows a thing or two about what it’s like to wear the fabled uniform.
“With everybody coming in the game contributing something (such as) John (Henson), Dexter (Strickland), Larry, Ed (Davis), Marcus (Ginyard), Will. That’s a Carolina team when you have everybody doing what they’re supposed to do playing unselfish, moving the ball and guarding people.”