By Adam Lucas
We should have seen this coming when Roy Williams called a first half timeout.
That should have been the sign that this wasn’t going to be a typical North Carolina basketball game. Instead, it turned into one where every single decision had multiple layers, every option had a secondary and tertiary option, and every choice had the potential to change the outcome of the game.
It started in the first half. College rules dictate that teams have one timeout they lose if they don’t call in the first 20 minutes. Use it or lose it. The Tar Heels invariably lose it. There are times Carolina has the ball in that first half scenario, shot clock off, and his assistant coaches will subtly mention, “We have a timeout,” and Roy Williams almost always—always!—plays it out. He wants his team to learn to operate without him guiding them.
Tuesday night, with his team up by four points in the first half, he called the use it or lose it timeout with 24.5 seconds left in the half. Pitt, however, which is coached by Kevin Stallings—the mad scientist of the Williams coaching tree—craftily came out in a box-and-one against Justin Jackson.
The Tar Heels had to heave a desperation shot, but Luke Maye corralled the rebound and scored at the halftime buzzer…not so meaningless a basket in a game, don’t forget, Carolina ultimately won by two points.
That was the prelude to a fascinating final 9.7 seconds. Up by three points and with just five team fouls, Williams first instructed his squad to give the sixth team foul. Justin Jackson swatted Jamel Artis as Artis crossed midcourt, setting up yet another decision.
This time, there were 7.2 seconds remaining.
“I started to call timeout,” Williams said. “I didn’t call one because Kevin didn’t have any. So I got word to everyone we were going to foul.”
That’s how complex things can be in the closing seconds; it’s not just how many timeouts the Tar Heels have, it’s also taking into account how many stoppages the other team might have. Williams also knew he had veterans on the court, as Kenny Williams was the most inexperienced player, and the Tar Heels otherwise had a pair of seniors and two juniors on the court. If you can’t trust players who have been in your program for three and four years, who can you trust?
There's another element to consider: Stallings' team had run some beautiful offensive sets in the game. Given six seconds to get a good look, there's a high likelihood they would have gotten a good look at a game-tying shot.
Jackson glanced at the UNC sideline, saw Williams giving the instruction to foul, and did a quick double-take.
“I was a little surprised,” Jackson said. “He’s not usually a guy who likes to foul.”
In this case, though, he was that kind of guy.
“I think if you can get it down to six or five (seconds) your chances are drastically higher if you give them a chance to shoot one and one and not tie it up with a three,” Williams said.
And then there’s yet another variable—the likely subsequent inbounds pass. Williams loves Kennedy Meeks in that role, and felt comfortable with him throwing the inbounds even in a one-point game.
That’s what it turned out to be, as Artis made both of his charity tosses. After he made the first one, it was time for Stallings—who Williams said last night on his radio show is “the best offensive mind” with whom he’s ever coached—to make the choice. The Pitt boss told Artis to make the second free throw instead of missing it on purpose.
Artis sank it, putting the ball in Meeks’ hands for the inbounds pass. The Tar Heels sent two players long, but eventually settled on a short pass to Isaiah Hicks. The senior knocked down a free throw, and then Pitt had to dash the length of the court to try and tie the game.
"The way it worked out was big for us because it forced them to go the full length of the court,” Jackson said.
Both Jackson and Williams hit on the longterm value of Tuesday’s game. Carolina didn’t especially want to be in that close a game with the last-place Panthers. But facing the most difficult stretch of the season beginning Saturday night, they’re virtually certain to be in a one-possession game at some point in the near future.
“If we’re in that situation again,” Jackson said, “we know what to do.”
And that’s the hope. If the Tar Heels have to execute in a one-possession game with the ball and the lead, better to do it for the first time in January on a friendly court than in March with elimination looming.
“That’s the first time we’ve been in that situation this year,” Williams said. “And it will help us next time.”