By Adam Lucas
PHILADELPHIA—Roy Williams had done plenty of scouting for Sunday. Of course he had. He couldn’t leave something this important to chance.
We’re talking, of course, about Easter eggs. Sunday morning was the morning of the East Regional championship game between Carolina and Notre Dame, but it was also Easter morning.
The Carolina head coach had both his children in Philadelphia, and he also had both his grandchildren in Philadelphia. So he was going to watch film, and he was going to gameplan, and he was going to coach his team, but first: he was going to hide eggs. Lots of eggs. One hundred and seven of them, to be exact.
Williams found what he thought was a suitable location, but he was outscouted by his daughter-in-law, Katie, who found a grassy area adjacent to a church near the team hotel. So on Sunday morning, while the rest of the Carolina world counted the minutes until the 8:49 tipoff, Williams and his entire family were watching with delight as grandsons Aiden and Court chased eggs.
The NCAA Tournament is a big deal to Roy Williams. But so is Easter.
“I did not want to miss Easter,” Williams said after his team advanced to the Final Four for a fourth time since he returned to Chapel Hill. “Easter is my favorite holiday of the year, because my grandsons are at an age where they enjoy doing those kinds of things. It was so special to just get to watch them be kids. To get a hug from your grandkids, that’s a feeling nobody can ever understand.”
"Other than the boys," said Scott Williams, "Pop had the next most fun."
A little less than 12 hours later, Roy Williams brought his other group of kids—the 2016 Tar Heels—to the Wells Fargo Center for the tiny matter of deciding the final entry in this year’s Final Four. It’s been four years since Carolina played in one of these final eight games. It had been seven years since Carolina won one of these.
And what tonight did was pretty simple: it reminded us that these are absolutely excruciating. The stakes are impossible. Lose, and you’re grouped with those other 60 teams that made the field, even though you were so, so close. Win, and this team is remembered forever. With 9:52 left and the Tar Heels holding a nine-point lead, Eric Montross said on the Tar Heel Sports Network, “Isn’t this fun?”
Maybe that’s what you say when you’ve won one of these and your jersey is in the rafters and you have a long NBA career to provide some perspective. But Eric, on behalf of the rest of us whose only jersey hanging is in the closet, let me please tell you: it is not fun. It is terrible and stressful and agonizing. At one point in the second half, I looked in the Carolina section behind the bench, and there was Bobby Frasor with his hands clasped and then running his hands through his hair, and there was Rasheed Wallace wearing a “Carolina Basketball Never Stops” t-shirt waving his hands above his head, and there was King Rice punching the air after a big play, and it was just so incredibly tense.
And fun. So much fun.
It’s the way this bunch does it that makes it so enjoyable. I know we think that every year. There’s something to love about every edition of the Tar Heels, but this group…well, let’s wait another week and then try to define them. All I know is that with Carolina holding a three-point lead in the first half, Theo Pinson came back out on the court after a timeout, had some time to kill, and gave a wink and a nod to former Georgetown coach John Thompson, who was sitting courtside as a radio broadcaster.
Why would Theo Pinson wink at John Thompson? Because the two met earlier this season when Thompson won the inaugural Dean Smith Award in Chapel Hill, and also—most importantly—because Theo Pinson is Theo Pinson.
But Pinson is not just a politician. Pinson is also willing to dive on the floor to get key second-half loose balls, and Pinson also threw the alley-oop pass to Isaiah Hicks with 9:20 left that almost caused me to fall out of my seat on press row. It is hard to remain professional when the Tar Heels are playing basketball like that, you know.
That play capped a 12-0 run that followed an ill-timed Brice Johnson technical foul that felt, at the time, like a game-turner. That would have been horrible. Johnson has had one of the all-time great Carolina single seasons. He now owns the UNC single season record for double-doubles with 23, breaking Billy Cunningham’s mark that stood for 52 years. His next rebound will make him Carolina’s all-time single-season rebound leader. But for just a minute, it looked like we might remember the end of the 2016 season as the time when Brice Johnson got a silly technical foul. It would have been incredibly unfair, but it would’ve been hard to ignore.
His team wouldn’t let it happen. Four different Tar Heels scored in that 12-0 run.
After the game, Johnson apologized to his teammates in the UNC locker room. “I apologize for that technical,” the All-America said. “That was really dumb.”
There was a quick moment of silence. It was filled, of course, by Pinson.
“Yeah, man,” he said. “That really was dumb.”
The room broke up in laughter, the perfect comment at the perfect time.
Somewhere in that room was Marcus Paige, another player who will one day see his jersey in the Smith Center rafters. Try to understand this about Paige: when he was in second grade, his mother, Sherryl, took him to see an NBA exhibition game in the Quad Cities, which was the closest the NBA ever came to their home in Iowa. The game featured the Toronto Raptors, who were led by star Vince Carter.
After the game, Carter threw a sweatband into the crowd, and Marcus Paige caught it. Right then, the second grader began talking about wanting to play basketball for North Carolina. “Right from that moment, he knew what Carolina was about, and he wanted to be part of it,” said his father, Ellis Paige.
The Paige family probably doesn't even know this yet, but Carter was watching Sunday night's game, texting friends who were there and trying to get updates on the atmosphere and on this Paige kid, whose path he probably doesn't realize he once crossed. That gives us the opportunity to say hey, Vince: thank you for the 1998 season and for the almost-dunk off the backboard against Duke and for those two Final Fours. But also, thanks for having really good aim with that sweatband in Quad City.
Ellis and Sherryl blinked their eyes after that exhibition game, and opened them what felt like a second later, and there was their son about to help Carolina to the Final Four. There were 30 seconds left and Nate Britt was about to check in for him, and Marcus Paige looked over to the Carolina section behind the Tar Heel bench, and he got a little teary-eyed. He saw his mother, father, sister and girlfriend, and he couldn’t help but think about the journey that had led to this point.
“They know how important this is to me,” Paige said afterward. “I’ve always told them this is my dream.”
Go ahead, Marcus, live it, as long as you have room for the rest of us in this crazy, ridiculous, unbelievable dream. And if you don’t mind, we’d like to ask your father what it’s like to see his child live out a dream he’s been talking about for 14 years.
“It’s a dream come true for him,” said Ellis. “It means that everything the Carolina coaches told him way back when they were recruiting him was true—that he’s the type of player who can help them get to Final Fours. And to see he and Brice and all the guys with those big smiles on their faces, it is four years of pure joy.”
Pure joy, of course, brings us back to the grandfather who started his day hiding Easter eggs and ended it making plans to take his team to the Final Four. There have been stories recently that might make you worry about Roy Williams. He has had some hard times. Most of us do, he would be quick to tell you.
But, man, the good times. Even on bad knees and fighting a cold, the good times just don’t get very much better than March 27, 2016.
“Let’s see,” Williams said as he stood outside a rapidly emptying Tar Heel locker room, watching players carry out trophies and hats and nets on their way to the bus. “Today was Easter Sunday. I got to hide Easter eggs for my grandsons. I coached a team I love to coach. I watched them win a game to go to the Final Four.
“This day, to me, was just priceless.”