By Adam Lucas
You cannot beat this.
I’m sorry, but you can’t. Maybe the Smith Center is not cool. Maybe it does not get the attention of other venues when the world talks about the best college basketball atmospheres. But you cannot find a place anywhere in the country—name any place, anywhere—that provides the charge given by 21,750 blue-wearing maniacs on Saturday afternoon at 2 p.m.
It started at 11:30 on Saturday morning. That’s when a mother and her son were posing by the “Welcome to Chapel Hill” sign at the city limits on Highway 54. Two and a half hours before the game, and people had on their sweatshirts, taking pictures. It was that kind of day.
People were three deep at the Old Well taking photos—not drinking from the Well, because, well, you know, but just taking photos—and older couples were walking arm in arm across campus. On Franklin Street, everyone was wearing blue. There is just something about that color, moving in waves down Franklin, past Sutton’s, and past Chapel Hill Sportswear. Girl Scouts were selling cookies outside of Carolina Coffee Shop.
A 15-minute walk away, fans walked by Woollen Gym, where Grandpa told them about the 1957 national champions, and watching Lennie Rosenbluth in person. And then they walked by Carmichael Auditorium, where Dad relayed the story of Dean Smith turning the heat up and Phil Ford’s senior day. All of this—the cookies and the Well and the stories—happened within a mile and a half of the Smith Center, which is another reason why you cannot beat this.
Oh, and as soon as those stories were told about Rosenbluth and Ford, you could walk over to the game, and there were Rosenbluth and Ford sitting in the stands along with 21,748 other Carolina fans, screaming like a couple of diehards.
“Whew!” Rosenbluth said on his way out the door after the 96-83 win, patting his heart as if he himself had not scored 2,045 points for these same Tar Heels during his career. “That was a good one.”
Let’s establish this right now: Florida State is a very good team. Barring injury, they will finish in the top four of the Atlantic Coast Conference. But they caught a bad scheduling break in having to visit Chapel Hill without a return game, and their break got worse when the game was scheduled for 2 p.m. on a Saturday, with a sellout crowd roaring.
“People don’t understand how good the crowds are here for games like that,” said Theo Pinson.
How could it not be? It was a day when, with the opponent a top-10 team, Luke Maye, who also found time to grab 15 rebounds, threw two length-of-the-court passes for dunks. Not once. Twice.
On the first one, with 13:20 remaining, Maye corralled a rebound. He looked, couldn’t believe what he saw, took one dribble, and, well…“I saw so many Florida State guys in front of me,” he said. “I was like, ‘This can’t be right.’ Then I saw Isaiah running free, and I felt like I was back to my quarterbacking days.”
Maye’s dad, of course, played quarterback for Carolina. You can not make this stuff up.
Maye was part of a variety of makeshift lineups that were required because of foul trouble and also because of an injury to Tony Bradley. If Bradley played for some other teams, his absence would’ve been equated to missing Wilt Chamberlain. Instead, Roy Williams simply figured out a way to put together some wacky combinations, including one such rotation that had 6-foot-6, 211-pound Pinson playing center.
Even Williams couldn’t believe it as he started describing the matchups in the huddle during a timeout. “Coach started laughing when he was calling out that lineup,” Joel Berry II said.
Why not? That’s what kind of day it was. Williams talks often of wanting his players to lose themselves in the game. Don’t think, just play, and rely on all the endless days of conditioning and practice and film study to guide the actions they take on the court. Those moments, the head coach believes, are Carolina at its very best.
What he’s asking for is exactly what Berry describes here, after scoring 26 points: “I was having so much fun I forgot to look at the scoreboard,” Berry said. “I lost track of time. I had so much fun with the guys out there today…It was such a high intensity game, and you lose track of the time, you lose track of the shot clock.”
In other words, you lose yourself.
At the center of it all (on this day, both literally and figuratively) was Pinson. He dove on the floor to secure a loose ball, and then he had a soaring dunk with under six minutes remaining. On the sideline, as the floor opened up in front of Pinson, a fan watched. “I thought, ‘This is going to be good," said that fan, who was Roy Williams.
“When I was in the air, I was like, ‘You’ve got to finish this one,’” Pinson said. “I’ve got a chance to make a play, so I need to make a play.”
He did. But what is so unique about Pinson is that although he celebrated his dunk, he got even more excited on the next trip down the court, when Luke Maye hit him on the wing, and Pinson then one-touched a lob pass to Isaiah Hicks for an alley-oop slam. After his dunk, Pinson grinned. After his pass, Pinson grinned, and waved his arms, and clapped his hands, and bounced up and down, and chest-bumped a teammate…and that’s pretty much when you know your team has that elusive chemistry, when players get more excited about their assists than their dunks.
“The only thing I was mad about was all that dadgum waving,” Williams said. “Get your butt back and down in a defensive stance.”
Well, can’t be a fan all the time.
Leave that to the rest of us. Roy Williams now has 799 career victories and his next win will make him only the ninth coach in Division I basketball history to reach that mark. Two of them have coached in Chapel Hill. For the better part of the last 50 years, we’ve been able to walk across campus in the winter and watch two of the best in history coach the best program in history.
So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that twenty thousand people regularly drive from across the state and beyond to be part of this. It’s happened for 30 years now in this building, it’ll happen again 48 hours from now, and sometimes it’s easy to take it for granted.
But this one? “This might have been,” Berry said, “the best crowd we’ve ever had.”
Maybe so. “We were talking about it last night,” Pinson said. “The number-9 team in the nation coming in, Saturday afternoon, a big-time win. I knew all along it was going to be through the roof out there today.”