CLEMSON--We've all been the person jammed in that crowded elevator, casually but frantically trying to figure out how to pass the time. It's just that we haven't all been in one with a bunch of sweaty Tar Heels and one miffed head coach.
You know what a crowded elevator is like. You're standing there, awkwardly, not really sure how to make small talk. You look at the buttons. Look up at the floor indicator. Look down at the floor. Look, well, anywhere other than at the other inhabitants of your small, confined space.
At Littlejohn Coliseum, getting from the playing floor to the visitor's locker room requires either a three-flight stair climb or an elevator ride in the one working elevator on that side of the building. After Thursday night's 68-59 road win, most of the Tar Heels chose the latter.
Ordinarily, that would be a wise move. After all, Carolina has considerably thinned its rotation, and three players had played at least 32 minutes and five had played at least 27. You think you would want to climb three flights of stairs after that kind of effort?
But Roy Williams didn't want to climb the stairs either. Which led to the coach being jammed in the elevator with his players, no one wanting to vocalize what everyone knew. This...was...tell them, Dexter:
"It was kind of awkward in that elevator," said Dexter Strickland, who led the team with 16 points on seven-of-nine shooting. "He was so mad at everyone, so he didn't even say anything at all while we were in there."
Strickland paused, perhaps considering the image he was painting.
"Yeah," he said, "it was kind of an awkward moment."
That's only fitting, because it was kind of an awkward game. Carolina won it going away, except when they almost frittered it away at the end--which only came after many in the allegedly sellout crowd of 9,778 had already streamed for the exits with 1:21 remaining...in a nine-point game. The Tar Heels dominated the game, except when they didn't, but Clemson was never quite able to take advantage. Carolina started out almost totally reliant on the three-pointer, then went 18:40 without one.
The Tar Heels did the things they've done well recently, enjoying a 13-2 advantage in points off turnovers and 13-0 in fast break points. But they also struggled with things they haven't done well lately, being outrebounded 39-30 for the game and watching Devin Booker have a monster second half. The Clemson big man tallied 21 points and 9 rebounds-in his 19 second-half minutes alone.
So perturbed was Williams that he took the elevator up to the locker room, talked to his team, took the elevator back down to his postgame press conference and then took the elevator back up to the locker room. This is usually a time when he would not be talking to his team, and probably would not even see his team until they boarded the bus for the Anderson airport.
But 20 minutes after the final buzzer, he was still so agitated that upon returning upstairs, he immediately grabbed a black dry erase marker, walked to the white board, and wrote, "They outrebounded us by 14 in the second half."
He underlined the number 14 three times, in case you weren't sure if he was serious. Then he turned to his team and said, "Make sure all you guys see that."
"We just had such a bad second half as a team that it's hard to be excited about the win," said Marcus Paige, who somehow was not credited with a second-half assist on his way to four for the game and was one of five Tar Heels with double figure scoring. "Good teams--and I think we're a good team-have to get better. We're not getting better when we have the kind of effort we have in the second half and have a lackadaisical effort."
Do you see why Paige and Williams have gotten along so well lately? Take that quote, put it on a page unattributed, and you might very easily guess it was the head coach talking.
Strickland, a senior, has seen Williams in good times and in bad. So he knows exactly how to take his head coach's constructive criticism, and even knows that it might not be such a bad thing for Williams to be miffed after a nine-point road win in a season when road wins have been rare in the ACC.
Carolina is 10-5 in the ACC after being an afterthought six weeks ago. They've won 20 games for the 40th time in 43 years. They've won four games in a row. They essentially cruised to a win in a venue where Miami and NC State, among others, have struggled. And despite all that, the head coach thinks they can play much better. Williams's frustration, Strickland said, is a good sign.
"Him being mad at us after a win means he knows our potential," Strickland said. "And it means he knows how much better we can play. That's only going to help us moving forward."