It's always a good sign when the task of picking the ten best wins of the past ten seasons is very, very difficult. After following the Tar Heels around the country over the past ten years, these are my picks for the ten best wins of the Roy Williams era.
What qualifies as a "best win"? It's not necessarily the most significant, or the one with the biggest stakes, but a game in which just the mere mention instantly takes you back to that exact moment.
1. March 6, 2005: Carolina 75, Duke 73.
The Tar Heels very well might have won the national title without winning this game. But I sure am glad they didn't have to try. In addition to being the best comeback of the Williams era, this nine-points-in-three-minutes epic comeback instantly took a place among the best in Tar Heel history.
The game had everything: an incredible individual performance (Sean May's 26 points and 24 rebounds), a redemptive storyline (from 8-20 to ACC regular season champions for Jawad Williams, Melvin Scott and Jackie Manuel), and a signature shot (Marvin Williams' game-winner, which sparked the loudest roar in Smith Center history).
This wasn't the game that won Carolina two national titles or sparked one of the best decades in UNC history. This was the game that made all of that seem possible.
2. April 4, 2005: Carolina 75, Illinois 70.
Lost in the glow of Williams' first national title and the storybook finish for the Tar Heels was the fact that the Illini were a very, very good team. Plus, Carolina had to beat them in front of an overwhelmingly pro-Illinois crowd in St. Louis.
3. April 7, 2009: Carolina 89, Michigan State 72.
What a beatdown. This was the crowning moment for what might have been the best team of the Williams era, as the Tar Heels rocketed through the NCAA Tournament. The hostile environment in Detroit made it even better. The entire building was rooting for the Spartans...until about ten minutes into the game, when it became clear that these two teams were on very different levels.
4. March 4, 2006: Carolina 83, Duke 76.
Carolina spoiled Senior Day for J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams and began a streak of four straight wins at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Late in their careers, the Tyler Hansbrough/Bobby Frasor/Danny Green/Marcus Ginyard class unanimously identified this as their favorite win of their UNC career. Hansbrough's desperation three-pointer and Frasor's composure at the free throw line late in the game remain indelible images.
5. December 1, 2004: Carolina 70, Indiana 63. This game is an outlier because Indiana really wasn't that good (the Hoosiers finished 15-14). But the Assembly Hall environment might have been the most hostile Carolina has faced during the Williams era. That Bloomington crowd hated--really hated--Sean May, and they were thirsty to show him that he had made a mistake with his college choice. It was the kind of crowd that would have wilted the Tar Heels just a couple of years earlier. Instead, they seemed to relish it, setting the stage for a decade of road success under Williams.
6. March 21, 2009: Carolina 84, LSU 70.
The toughest test on the way to the 2009 national title actually came in Greensboro. This was a very high-level game between an underseeded and athletic LSU squad and a Carolina team that was working through Ty Lawson's recovery from a toe injury. The Tigers led 54-49 with 12 minutes left, but Lawson poured in 21 second-half points to go with six assists and zero turnovers.
7. Jan. 6, 2008: Carolina 90, Clemson 88.
The Tar Heels improved to 15-0 with a buzzer-beating overtime win at Littlejohn Coliseum, thanks largely to Wayne Ellington's three-pointer with 0.4 seconds left in the extra period. Ellington actually scored seven of Carolina's nine points in overtime, and the Tar Heels survived three potential Clemson game-winning shots at the end of regulation. An unforgettable moment from this game: the calm, cool fist bump between Joe Holladay and Williams after Ellington sank the winner.
Might as well make this a double entry: the Feb. 10, 2008 double overtime win over the same Tigers was also a classic, as Carolina rallied from 15 points down to claim a 103-93 victory. Quentin Thomas had big plays late in the absence of Lawson, who sat out with an injury.
8. Jan. 28, 2009: Carolina 80, FSU 77.
I originally had the 2011 win in Tallahassee-when Harrison Barnes hit the game-winner with three seconds left-ranked above this one. But 2009 also included Tyler Hansbrough switching onto the high-scoring Toney Douglas on FSU's last possession and stoning him, and then Lawson sprinting the length of the court in three seconds to make the buzzer-beating three-pointer. Let's just make this a two-game entry, along with the Barnes winner. No matter what, Carolina's games in Tallahassee during the Williams era have always been interesting.
9. Jan. 17, 2004: Carolina 86, UConn 83.
Perhaps the first truly big win of the Williams era (the ACC/Big Ten Challenge win over Illinois was also important), the game was a showcase for Rashad McCants, who scored Carolina's last 10 points, including the clinching three-pointer with 6.2 seconds left. The Huskies would go on to win the national title.
10. March 5, 2011: Carolina 81, Duke 67.
It was a toss-up between this one and the 2007 win over Ohio State, which often goes overlooked but was one of the loudest games in the Smith Center in the last ten years. But because of the way the Senior Day triumph over Duke capped a remarkable recovery for the 2011 Tar Heels, it gets the edge. Barnes scored 18, and Kendall Marshall added 15 points and 11 assists.