The NIT selection committee handed UNC a gift it didn't expect (and maybe didn't deserve) -- a home game, and by sheer chance, a home game that had to be played in Carmichael. Just as the basketball gods handed Carolina a priceless snow game against Maryland at the nadir of the 2000 season ten years ago, those same gods (or at least C.M. Newton) gave the Tar Heels another chance for an old-fashioned basketball revival.
This writer was at the game that officially closed the record book on men's basketball in Carmichael Auditorium in January 1986 (as well as almost all the games in the last 3 1/2 years Carolina played there) -- and stood about 10 feet away when Jim Valvano grabbed the game ball and put in a layup on the way to the locker room in a good-humored attempt to make history after the game. That was a funny moment, but in the imagination of thousands of Carolina fans, Carmichael has taken on an increasingly mythical status in the quarter-century since the relocation to the Dean Dome. Deep down, many Carolina fans who came of fandom age in the 1980s or before still believe that Carmichael is the spiritual home of the Tar Heels.
Hence, this was a game not to miss. The renovations to the "new" Carmichael are fantastic -- it's now a fully functional 21st century athletic facility -- but what stood out on this night were the continuities with days gone by. The student section, front and center on one side of the court. The way the band sounds inside Carmichael -- still just as it did in the 1970s and 80s. The sense of excitement and buzz when the teams take the floor. The fact that everyone is pretty close to the floor, and there are no empty seats. The fact that as someone who grew up in Chapel Hill, everywhere you looked around the building you could find a familiar face.
For instance, look down a few rows and you see Bill and Leesie Guthridge, clearly delighted to be soaking in the atmosphere and enjoying an exciting Carolina first half. Some UNC fans may not be that interested in the NIT, but Bill Guthridge isn't one of them. He told me he hoped Jackson State could spring the upset over Mississippi State so Carolina could get a second home game (adding he didn't think it was likely).
A few rows away, in the latter stages of the game, there was Lillian Lee -- an unofficial team mom to many players during the Dean Smith era -- literally jumping up and down in the aisles as Tyler Zeller's late steal and dunk finally gave Carolina control of the game for good.
And throughout, you saw large parts of the crowd standing on key possessions, including pretty much all of the last 5-6 minutes of the game, enjoying an exciting game and willing Carolina to pull it out. Tony Shaver had a reasonable complaint in saying William & Mary deserved to be the home team in this matchup, but he would have complained twice as loud if he knew the effect Carmichael would have on this game. The clearly pumped up Tar Heels jumped all over the visitors for a quick 9-0 lead in what was undoubtedly the most exciting single minute of the year. Then in the end game, the crowd helped push Carolina over the top as the Heels scored the last 11 points of the game. Those two spurts were the difference.
Maybe this was just a one-off special night, not to be repeated for decades, if ever. Or maybe it will happen again as early next week (conceivably Carolina could host N.C. State in a quarterfinal, if both ACC clubs pull minor road upsets in the next round).
In either case, Tuesday night was a shot of pure Carolina basketball elixir, at a time when just about everyone who cares about or participates in Carolina basketball needs it. It was especially important for the younger players on Carolina's team to have had this experience -- the ones who have not been integral parts of ACC champion, Final Four, and NCAA title teams. They've had to hear all year about Carolina's great history, and rightly so, yet their own collective experience of UNC basketball this year has been more frustrating than fulfilling. That changed on Tuesday night, at least for one night -- when a team went out and enjoyed playing basketball in an intimate on-campus space in front of an appreciative crowd that roared approval for every good play and showed support for every player, and when the efforts of the team and the encouragement of the crowd produced a very happy ending.
Regardless of what happens the rest of this tournament, no one on this 2009-10 team can say they haven't experienced firsthand what Carolina basketball, at its best, is all about. That's a gift Tar Heels everywhere can all appreciate, whether you were lucky enough to be in Carmichael Tuesday night or not.