LONG BEACH-Approximately 60 minutes before Friday night's home game against North Carolina, Long Beach State head coach Dan Monson was sitting in a locker room just off the Walter Pyramid court. Matter-of-factly, he said what he expected to unfold as the Tar Heels became the first Atlantic Coast Conference team to ever play at Long Beach:
"This will be the best environment in the history of this school."
What did that mean? It meant students had been camped out since 8 a.m. on Thursday. It meant extra bleachers were brought in to contain a crowd that eventually swelled to 6,912, the largest in Walter Pyramid history. It meant Clipper Darrell was on hand in a half-yellow, half-black suit, taking the microphone at every timeout to fire up the crowd.
"Let's show North Carolina whose building this is," Clipper Darrell howled during the game's early minutes, as the homestanding 49ers fed off the atmosphere and eventually built a six-point lead. Long Beach had experienced a tough week, dropping a stinker at Southern Cal on Tuesday, but you could feel the crowd lifting them.
Late in the first half, you could sense the belief from the student section-where they believe everything, all the time, everywhere-starting to infect the rest of the crowd. It wasn't just Clipper Darrell and a few diehard students anymore. Fans in the front row were high-fiving.
There was absolutely no way to know how Carolina might respond. They didn't know. Roy Williams didn't really know. Kenny Smith, sitting in the stands behind the Tar Heel bench, didn't know.
That's when something entirely unexpected happened: the young Tar Heels responded exactly the way you would hope they might. First, they made a subtle little push at the end of the first half. Offensive rebounds from James Michael McAdoo and Brice Johnson cut into that six-point deficit, and then a Johnson dunk cut it to 32-31.
With the chance to take the lead right before halftime on an inbounds pass under the Carolina basket, Marcus Paige showed maturity and patience when the original call-a lob to McAdoo-wasn't available. He didn't try to force it. He just waited an extra beat and found Johnson for a layup, and a 33-32 halftime lead.
All that emotion, all that Clipper Darrell, all that atmosphere...and Carolina still had a one-point lead. In hindsight, this should have been a very good sign.
Williams challenged his team-which had shot just 3-of-13 from the three-point line and 31.7% from the field overall-at halftime.
"Be tough enough to knock down those shots," he told his shooters. "Don't just shoot them. Be tough enough to make them."
Suddenly, they were. It happened with very little warning. The Tar Heels played solidly in the early minutes of the second half, and then-it happened. In the first two games of the season, 80 full minutes of basketball, Carolina had made six three-pointers. In two minutes and eight seconds of the second half at Long Beach State, the Tar Heels made four. Reggie Bullock hit one. Leslie McDonald hit one. P.J. Hairston hit two. It was like finding a $20 bill in your pocket right before you throw your clothes in the wash. Hey, where did that come from?
"It was just getting in a rhythm," Hairston said. "Once I hit the first one, I felt really good. We knew that we had to hit the shots, and that's finally what we did."
Even the best environment in Long Beach State history was no match for this sudden offensive awakening. Clipper Darrell still tried. "North Carolina cannot be in this building," he barked during a timeout with nine minutes left and the 49ers trailing by 16.
But suddenly, you could barely hear Clipper Darrell. That's because at the tops of the bleachers, in the portable seats built to hold the fans who wanted to see this game and this game only, pockets of Tar Heel fans were roaring.
"Tar!" yelled the fans on one side of the court.
"Heels!" answered the fans on the other. It was 2,532 miles from the Smith Center, and it sounded like a home game.
"Long Beach State!" Clipper Darrell bellowed into his microphone, but it didn't matter, because play resumed and the Carolina fans were still carrying the noise.
This is part of learning to be a Tar Heel basketball player. You have to know that every arena you play in will probably be full, and it will probably have lots of fans screaming at you. But it will also have something else: more fans than you expect screaming for you, because they live far from home and this is their one chance to see their team. Carolina has seen it everywhere during the Williams era--Tallahassee, Reno, Las Vegas, Saint Louis...and now Long Beach. For them, this is not just a stop on the way to Maui. This is an event.
The final blow was provided by, fittingly, a freshman. The Tar Heels had a scattered possession with five minutes remaining. Long Beach State was making its final push, and had cut their deficit to 10. Dexter Strickland and Desmond Hubert fumbled the ball, the shot clock was nearly drained, and the ball suddenly found Paige on the left wing. Miss this shot, and the 49ers would be on the fast break with an opportunity to make it a single-digit game. It was a big shot. Paige never hesitated in taking it, and in watching it settle gently into the bottom of the net.
"The shot clock was getting low, because we had a bunch of bobbled passes," he said. "Our offense was a little out of sync. I ended up wide open, and Coach likes wide open shots. Late in the shot clock, if you're open, you have to take it with confidence."
On the road, in front of a hungry crowd, with the momentum of the game tilting on the fulcrum of his shot, Paige didn't just take the shot. He took it with confidence. Swish, 12-point lead, ballgame.
Suddenly, Carolina looked like a team that had done this before, even if they hadn't. With a minute left and the teams waiting for play to resume, there was Joel James telling Strickland he was about to take the ball the length of the court for a dunk.
He didn't. But it was an otherwise successful evening for the big man-and for the Tar Heels.
"That was a very hostile crowd," James said. "That was my first time ever experiencing anything like that, to be a freshman and hear those fans screaming at you. To be honest with you, I was a little timid. Once you get in the locker room at halftime and hear Coach screaming, you realize you have to wake up and play basketball."
That's exactly the realization you want James and his classmates to have in Long Beach and not in Blacksburg or College Park or Clemson.
Thirty minutes after the game, they began to turn off the lights at the Walter Pyramid. There, sitting on the steps in one corner of the arena, white hat slightly askew, was Clipper Darrell. His head was in his hands and he looked exhausted. He had shouted. He had done the gangnam style dance. He had shaved a Long Beach logo into the back of his head. He had done everything one superfan could do.
This time, though, it was the Tar Heels who did something that might've been a little unexpected: they did more.