By Adam Lucas
Welcome back, old ACC. It’s 11 p.m. and do you know where your Tar Heels and 21,269 of their closest friends might be? They’re in the Smith Center, standing and roaring, not worried that tomorrow is a school day or there’s an 8 a.m. meeting or traffic in the Bowles Lot is going to be sticky.
There aren’t many things in life for which you’d endure this. People leave concerts before the encore just to get a ten-minute head start. Enough people stayed in their seats on Wednesday that even late in a game that was essentially decided, when Nate Britt made a solid defensive play in stopping Louisville guard Donovan Mitchell on a potential fast break layup and turned him back in the other direction, a sizable cheer came for the otherwise innocuous play.
They knew what Britt’s effort meant, just like they knew what Carolina’s 74-63 win meant. Three games left in the regular season with a two-game lead in the conference. Well, wait a minute—a two-game lead in the conference, in the league some say might be the toughest basketball conference ever.
It might have been Louisville, which still feels a little weird. But Wednesday was a solid, important, possibly season-defining ACC win.
These days, the ACC is a national brand. It’s a necessity in today’s world of college sports, because that’s what produces all of those valuable television dollars.
But the ACC used to belong mostly to those of us on Tobacco Road. We lived it every night and then relived it at work and school the next day. Those 9 p.m. weeknight games were usually on Raycom (maybe you know it as Jefferson Pilot, and maybe you’re humming “Sail with the pilot…”) and usually involved Billy Packer, so we spent most of our evenings alternately cheering on the Tar Heels and groaning at Billy. This is where the phrase “turn down the sound” was born.
How glorious were these days? It was the era before television invented the split screen, so you could actually watch the game instead of the coaches.
Sure, Wednesday night was Rick Pitino and Louisville. But it could have just as easily been Lefty Driesell and Maryland or Terry Holland and Virginia or Bobby Cremins and Georgia Tech. It was late February, the winner was going to seize control of the regular season title race, it was way past bedtime on a school night, and this was ACC basketball.
College students, you aren’t going to believe this: one day you will have to take a nap during the day in order to stay awake for games like this. It will be totally worth it, not just for the buzz of being in the arena but for the postgame adrenaline. That's when you get home after midnight but you might as well watch the highlights, and then read a quick recap, and let's just check Twitter really quickly to see what people are saying, and before you know it it's 2 a.m. and you know what that means--time to watch the highlights again.
Some people in the “real world” will not understand why you arrange your day around a 9 p.m. college basketball game, and those people are beyond help. Find the ones who take off work when the schedule comes out—the day of the game in order to make the drive to Chapel Hill, and the day after because it’s a very late night—and then line up outside the Smith Center two hours before the doors open, because those are your people.
Those are the people who packed the Smith Center on Wednesday. Sitting there during warmups around an hour before game time, I looked up in the stands and saw a fan with a fully-drawn strutting ram logo tattooed across his entire calf. That’s what kind of night it was.
I think we can agree Roy Williams is hard to impress when it comes to crowd participation. Tonight, he was simple: “I loved our crowd,” the head coach said. “It’s exciting to play that kind of basketball game.”
The Smith Center crowd has now made a difference in several games this year, including Tennessee, NC State, Florida State, Notre Dame and Virginia. But every one of those games was on the weekend. When Justin Jackson dropped through his 24-foot three-pointer that was essentially the clincher, it was 10:45 p.m. on a Wednesday. The crowd roared like it was lunchtime on a Saturday.
About that three-pointer. After shootaround, when they have a couple extra minutes, a group of Tar Heels have a deep shooting contest. We’re talking really deep, like midcourt logo deep.
“We shoot at the tip of the state,” said Nate Britt, who is a usual participant. “Not the side where the state is longer, but the side where the state is shorter. It’s about two or three steps outside the NBA three-point line.”
“Justin is hard to beat,” Britt said with a grin.
So Jackson’s shot with 4:36 left really wasn’t anything unusual for the strong ACC Player of the Year candidate. The shot clock was running down, the Tar Heels needed a score, and Joel Berry threw Jackson the ball. Not much to do except knock it down.
But watch the play again. Jackson specifically ran to that spot. There was some space in front of defender Ray Spalding, but Jackson ran to approximately Franklin on the map of North Carolina and then raised his right hand, as though it was perfectly normal to be 25 feet from the rim and calling for the ball as if was a layup. For him, maybe it is.
“I told them they had helped a little bit,” Jackson said with a smile.
That’s the thing about this year’s team--everyone helps a little bit. Stilman White came into the game in meaningful minutes for the first time in weeks and played a calming two minutes, then banked in a straight-ahead jumper. Tony Bradley grabbed five rebounds. Seventh Woods was steady against a harassing Cardinal defense. Britt was tough defensively. It wasn't a game you'll remember for one singular moment, no bloody Montross or Marvin Williams, both features of previous top-10 games in the Smith Center. It was just an intense, physical ACC basketball game between two of the best teams in the country, the kind we'll wish could get here a little faster when it's June or July and basketball seems so far away.
It was after eleven o’clock when the game officials decided to conduct a replay review in a 12-point game with under 40 seconds remaining. Want to leave? Nah, most of the crowd stayed, soaking in just a few more seconds. It was just another Wednesday night in the ACC.