By Adam Lucas
RALEIGH—Around midway through the first half, Roy Williams had enough.
Providence had come into the second-round NCAA Tournament game with the clear intention of agitating the Tar Heels. A recent national story quoted an anonymous opposing coach as questioning Carolina’s toughness. “It’s like a country club,” is what he said.
The Friars might not admit to it. But you could tell they felt the same way. They pushed. They held on a second longer than might have been necessary. Kris Dunn jawed from the moment he made his first shot. Ben Bentil was going back and forth with Theo Pinson.
And you could feel the Tar Heels getting caught up in it. With about four minutes to play in the first half in a tie game, Brice Johnson blocked a Providence shot with extreme prejudice.
Johnson didn’t really block that shot. He terminated it. Abolished it. Annihilated it.
It was obvious, then, that the Tar Heels had a little aggression they needed to release. The game officials noticed, and had a quick discussion with Williams. The head coach had a simple message for his team during the ensuing timeout, which was presumably needed to reinflate the basketball after Johnson’s assault on it.
“The refs are telling me some guys are talking too much,” Williams told his team. “We don’t do that. Just be us.”
And then that’s exactly what they did on the way to a deceptively easy 85-66 win that advances the Tar Heels to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year.
We still don’t know, perhaps, what the real “us” is going to be. But we know this for sure: it’s not the team Providence thought it was. It’s not country club. It’s not “cute,” as Joel Berry said one Friar trash-talked him. It’s not soft.
"People talk about us,” said Isaiah Hicks, who spends most of his road trips sleeping quietly in his hotel room and the other portion barreling through opposing post players in the paint. “They said in the ACC Tournament we were soft and couldn’t finish. We just use that as fuel. We’re not the same team that was called soft.”
Then they went out and proved it. Providence was busy trying to win the game with two very talented players, Bentil and Dunn. They tied it at 41 early in the second half, and then the Tar Heels ripped off a 9-0 run, with four different players scoring during the spurt.
That’s a more accurate depiction of this team. Late in the game, Carolina had two beautiful possessions of ball movement, once when Marcus Paige fed Isaiah Hicks in transition, who then dropped it to Justin Jackson for an easy hoop. A couple minutes later, Hicks went sprawling out of bounds to save a loose ball, and almost blindly found Jackson with a one-handed pass for another easy basket.
Bentil fouled out, by which point he had run out of words. Even his trash talk had turned complimentary. At one point, he barked, “Their bigs can’t guard me, only Theo can guard me!” Thanks…I guess?
Dunn was eventually removed to a nice salute from the Providence crowd. That gave the Tar Heels a chance to continue being themselves on a happy bench, backed by a very supportive Raleigh crowd. With 15.6 seconds left and Quadree Smith at the free throw line, Williams asked his bench—which contained virtually every member of the regular rotation, who had long since been removed from the game—“Who had the best defensive play of the game?”
There was a pause. This is a question you want to get right. And by right, that means coming up with the same answer as Williams.
“It was Isaiah,” said Nate Britt, just a beat before Williams himself singled out Hicks for staying down on a shot fake earlier in the game.
“If Brice or Theo had been guarding him, they would’ve fouled the guy six times apiece,” the head coach said. Williams and Britt shared a laugh at their single-mindedness.
“Coach Williams told me, ‘You get a plus,’” Britt said, referring to the treasured plus points that get players out of post-practice sprints.
“How many?” Britt, the savvy veteran, replied. Hey, it was an NCAA Tournament victory. It was worth taking a chance at being greedy.
“Five,” the head coach unexpectedly said.
This sent the bench into disbelief. “I thought five was a little excessive,” Pinson said. Britt immediately yelled down to head manager Forrest Reynolds, who refused to believe the head coach had actually granted five plus points at one time. Williams and Britt slapped hands with wide grins.
Johnson tracked down the game ball, cradling it all the way to the locker room, holding it during the postgame celebration, and then stuffing it into his backpack for the short trip back to Chapel Hill. He'd been so harsh to the ball in the first half, he probably felt like he owed it a happy home.
Plus points were being freely distributed. Game balls were being treasured. It was a festive scene. There was no trash-talking, no showing up of the opponent. They’d been tough when they had to be. Now they could just be us.