by Turner Walston
They weren't playing North Carolina basketball. Not by a long shot. Carolina trailed Davidson 10-3 when Stilman White, Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson joined Luke Maye and Tony Bradley on the court five minutes into Wednesday evening's contest. The Tar Heel second team would reel off 10 straight points –eight of them by Maye– to take a two-point lead.
It was an inspiring sequence, one reminiscent of the old Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge Blue Teams at Carolina. With the starters on the bench (because "We sucked," Roy Williams said), the second-teamers kept the Tar Heels in the game.
"The whole second squad provided us a big lift off the bench with all their energy and stuff," said senior Isaiah Hicks. "They really showed us we've got to play like that from the jump all the time."
"They definitely did a great job of giving us what they needed to give us," said Justin Jackson. "We still didn't come out and match it after we came back out there, and honestly for the rest of the game we just kind of pulled it out because we're more gifted."
'More gifted.' That's a junior echoing something he must have heard his head coach say dozens of times. 'More gifted.' That's the phrase Williams goes to when his team secures a win over a non-conference opponent early in the season. More gifted. Not 'played better.' Not 'fought harder.' With those two words, Williams is often –not always, mind you– saying that he's not necessarily impressed with his team's effort. 'More gifted.' Sometimes, 'more gifted' wins. Sometimes, 'more gifted' nearly blows a 16-point lead at home.
That's what happened Wednesday. With 12:46 to play, the Tar Heels led Davidson by 16 points and looked to cruise to victory, because they were, well, more gifted. But the Wildcats didn't go away. With high-scoring duo Jack Gibbs and Peyton Aldridge pacing their comeback effort, Davidson would cut the margin to three before the Tar Heels made the plays to pull away late for a nine-point win.
Through much of the contest, the Tar Heels looked disjointed, almost sleepwalking on the Last Day of Classes in a 9 p.m. non-conference game. With Joel Berry watching from the sidelines, his left foot in a walking boot due to a sprained ankle, the Tar Heels lacked urgency, often lacked an identity.
Berry's ankle may take some time to heal; he may not play Sunday against Tennessee. But North Carolina has to play, as Williams said in his postgame press conference. "You know who had to play tonight? North Carolina, regardless of who's available. And if we use that as excuse, then we're not being thought enough, mentally or physically what we should be," the head coach said.
Joel Berry has been one of the Tar Heels' two best players to date, but he can't score from the sideline. North Carolina has games on the schedule whether or not Berry can play, and they don't get to put an asterisk on the schedule next to the games he misses. Likewise with Theo Pinson, a presumptive starter who has not appeared in a game to date.
So what does it mean, that North Carolina has to play? What does it mean to wear that jersey, to represent this school and program?
"Playing hard, playing smart, play together," said Kennedy Meeks. "I don't think we played as hard as we could have (against Davidson). I don't think we played as smart as we could have, and I definitely don't think we played together the best way we know how. Like Coach [Steve Robinson] said at timeout, that's the way the flow of the game goes sometimes. You've just got to live with it and swallow the pill and move on."
And continue to play Carolina basketball, whether or not your floor leader is out there with you.
"You've just got to step up," Jackson said. "When Theo went out, we knew everybody had to step up. When Luke went out there for a little bit, we knew everybody had to step up. So now with Joel, that's a huge hole for us but everybody else has to step up. That's me included." And then Jackson, who matched his career high with 27 points and became the first Tar Heel in two and a half seasons to make seven three-pointers, nitpicked his own game in a way that would make his head coach proud. "I had three turnovers. I think I had a couple of bad fouls. I didn't get to the offensive boards enough and so there's little things that I need to do better as well. But everybody has to take initiative and take responsibility for what they have to do."
There were flashes of Carolina basketball on Wednesday, enough for a more gifted team to escape with a win even as the final two minutes were tense. With just under nine minutes to go, Brandon Robinson stole the ball on the defensive end and saved it to Jackson. He hit Kenny Williams with a cross-court pass and then found his spot on the perimeter. Williams took a couple of dribbles toward the lane and then passed back to Jackson, who nailed a three-pointer.
"I saw him really getting his feet set, and he had hit four or five at that point," Williams said. "My first instinct was to get him the ball in rhythm, and he did what he does."
"I thought he had a pretty good shot, and he passed one up to drive and kick to me," Jackson said.
It was simple, really. Steal leads to run-out leads to assist leads to a made basket. Simple, but Carolina basketball. And the Tar Heels will take more of that.