By Adam Lucas
BLACKSBURG—Sometimes, things just go right.
That’s what happened to Carolina on Sunday afternoon, as they escaped Cassell Coliseum with a 75-70 win to remain undefeated in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
It was one of those games that you can’t quite figure out how Carolina managed to win. The Tar Heels shot 3-for-23 from the three-point line, and it was an ugly 3-for-23. They spent the majority of the afternoon in foul trouble, resulting in some unusual combinations on the court and some hectic offense, especially late in the first half. They missed some free throws late that would’ve taken some of the tension out of the game.
Other teams across the conference may watch film of the game and conclude Carolina is beatable. It wasn’t a dominating performance. It won’t inspire anyone to believe the Tar Heels are invincible.
But there comes a point in a season when a team begins to display an identity. And after a couple years of sometimes being a team that couldn’t quite find a way to make the biggest play at the biggest moments, the Tar Heels have turned the corner.
Playing with the personality of head coach Buzz Williams, who at one point clapped his hands together so violently in protest of a call he sent his watch skidding down the sideline, the Hokies battled back from a 32-13 deficit and took a 61-59 lead with eight minutes left. That was the opportunity for the Tar Heels to be what they are. It was a losable game. Curl up and take a road loss in front of a snowbound sellout crowd and it’s not a disaster. Other teams across the country are losing games just like this on virtually every day.
Except that’s not the personality of this year’s team. Not right now. Right now—and it’s only late January, so it’s not a finished product—the Tar Heels are a team that finds a way to make winning plays.
This might be the quote of the season so far for Carolina:
“This year, the thing is that those plays can happen for any of us,” said Marcus Paige. “We’ve had success in those situations, so we don’t feel the pressure of the game and the moment doesn’t dictate what we do. We just relax and get our shots. We’re all confident in late game situations because we’ve been there so much.”
He was right. On the next possession, Paige drew the defense and then found Brice Johnson for an easy hoop, the second time in the game Paige had seemed to know exactly where Johnson would be before the play developed and then fed the big man for a basket. Johnson has the savvy to keep watching his teammate even when it looks like a perimeter shot is imminent. The defense turns to find the rim, but Paige and Johnson know the play isn’t finished.
“That’s just Marcus and I having worked together the past couple years,” Johnson said. “I know what he’s going to do. He told me to keep eye contact with him even when it’s late. We’ve been working together so long it’s just second nature to us. That’s why you want to have seniors.”
The next time down the court, Joel Berry hit one of his patented late-clock three-pointers, and the Tar Heels would never trail again. It wasn’t easy, though. Among other big plays (Justin Jackson taking advantage of a defensive miscommunication and slipping unguarded to the hoop for a layup was another, as was Johnson’s John Henson-like defense on a Hokie inbounds pass that forced a turnover), it required Berry making a key steal in the backcourt in the final three minutes, a signature play to go with the ferocious charge he drew against Jalen Hudson in the first half. Because Johnson’s emergence and Paige’s consistent greatness get most of the headlines, Berry has very quietly turned into a player who reliably makes big plays at key moments.
Watch him once, and you think maybe he’s getting lucky. Watch him over the course of a season, and you start to realize it’s becoming a habit.
“Coaches love those kinds of plays,” Berry said. “Points and all that stuff are in the stat sheet. The plays that don’t show up as obviously are the ones that turn everything around. I want to do whatever I need to do to help the team.”
Sometimes, things just go right. But sometimes, a team makes the plays that make them go right.
In the Carolina locker room, after the Tar Heels had passed around a stat sheet and marveled at Brice Johnson’s 17 rebounds (“That’s cooking!” Kennedy Meeks said) and given Berry a little grief for his 17 field goal attempts, there was still time for one more savvy play.
In the corner of the room sat Kenny Williams calmly thumbing through his cell phone. Then the freshman broke out in a wide smile.
“Classes canceled before 12:20 p.m. tomorrow,” he said.
Williams can be a little soft-spoken—and there are several Tar Heels who are most definitely not soft-spoken—so very few of his teammates heard him.
“Classes are canceled before 12:20 p.m. tomorrow,” Williams yelled.
At that moment, it was just a room full of college students staring at a three and a half hour bus ride home who just found out they had the opportunity to sleep in on a winter Monday morning.
If ace photographer J.D. Lyon Jr. had snapped a photo right at that moment, you would have thought it was a shot from the seconds immediately following a big victory. The Tar Heels responded the way you used to respond when you had to watch the local television crawl waiting patiently for your county’s closings to scroll across the bottom. There was a roar, and there were a couple of high fives, and Johnson celebrated with the familiar fists clinched, fierce growl you’d recognize from a big dunk. The cheers bounced off the cinderblock walls and echoed down the hall into the tunnel.
7-0 in the ACC. A possible ascension to the nation’s number-one team in tomorrow’s polls. And no classes before noon on Monday.
Sometimes, things just go right.