But even though some of the historical moments brought back to life periodically over the last several months made some of the older Heels weep and introduced the younger ones to UNC’s unsurpassed greatness, the team on the floor resembled nothing that embodies Carolina basketball.
But on Tuesday night at Carmichael Arena – not Auditorium – in a throwback game not anticipated back in November, a Heels squad that battled seemingly every kind of adversity possible finally had some fun.
It wasn’t just that UNC defeated William & Mary, 80-72, or that John Henson’s hands are probably sore after an array of electrifying dunks and blocks, or that Tyler Zeller’s Tyler Hansbrough impersonation in the open court gave UNC two key buckets, or that UNC overcame a fascinating 3-point barrage by the Tribe. It was because the Heels were loose.
This was the NIT, and instead of being embarrassed about being here and playing like it, UNC embraced this evening and made the most of it.
Consider that a rarity for 2010.
“I’ve played in a lot of games wearing this North Carolina jersey,” said Deon Thompson, who tied former Duke star Christian Laettner for the most games played in ACC history with 148. “(I) played in a couple of Final Fours, but being out there with the fans and all of the history that's happened in this auditorium is something I will always remember.”
He‘ll have the floor burns to remind him for some time.
Carolina may go out in the next round when it visits a Mississippi State club that should probably be in the NCAA Tournament. Even if it does, this night may have cut the cord to the just-concluded regular season. If not, it certainly did some good.
Smiles were in abundance and teammates helped each other off the floor. Even Travis Wear and Marcus Ginyard banging heads and crashed to the floor - which appeared to encapsulate the entire season in that single flash - couldn’t keep them in the infirmary. Both returned and helped UNC capture the victory.
“It was fun seeing my team play like that,” Roy Williams said. “It was fun seeing my team have a passion. It was fun seeing my team have fun.”
There were plenty of moments that must have irked Williams. Carolina’s defensive rotation seriously lacked at times and the offensive movement was sluggish too often. Those sights weren’t exactly new to baby blue eyes. But the energy, fight, grit and whatever other adjectives you care to use surfaced within them to overcome the feisty visitors.
That, in and of itself, was fun for the players. Newness always is, especially when it turns out well.
“Yeah, it really was,” Zeller said when asked if this was a new lease on life for the team. “It’s definitely a change from what we’re used to, and it was great to see guys fight and do what we had to to get the win.”
And capping the evening, before Williams was interviewed on the court by ESPN, was Thompson standing next to him clapping as the UNC fight song played. He looked into the student section, flashed a smile comparable to the won he wore late night last April 6 in Detroit, and reveled in the moment.
Thompson was having fun.
“It definitely was what college basketball is about,” he said, with perhaps a hint of nostalgia fueling his thoughts. “Enjoying wins and victories with the people you go to school with and you see every day on campus, that’s what college basketball is all about.”
At North Carolina, it’s also about winning games. And for this team, that means even in the NIT, especially when it’s fun.