'33' stamped in minds of Tar Heels

acarter@newsobserver.comJanuary 18, 2012 

— The number 33 is written on a board inside North Carolina's locker room at the Smith Center. Roy Williams, the Tar Heels' coach, put it there. After his team's 90-57 defeat at Florida State on Saturday, the symbolism doesn't need explanation.

Williams said during his weekly radio show Monday night that the number is there for good reason, and that it "will be up there for a while." Each time a player walks by it, he will be reminded of how badly the Seminoles defeated the Tar Heels in the most-lopsided defeat in Williams' nine seasons in Chapel Hill.

Not that they needed any reminding when they gathered for practice - their first since that loss - on Monday morning. Or when they arrived at the Smith Center for work again Tuesday. Already, the loss at Florida State has served to motivate the Tar Heels - to make a team that isn't naturally intense find its inner fire.

"Practice overall was great," senior forward Tyler Zeller said. "We had great intensity and great focus. If we had played like that, the way we practiced, it would have been a much closer game."

The No. 8 Tar Heels, who will play Thursday night at Virginia Tech, entered the season with the No. 1 ranking and as the favorite to win the national championship. Their 33-point loss at Florida State called into question whether North Carolina is the kind of team people thought it was just a couple of months ago.

The Tar Heels suffered a similarly disappointing defeat a season ago in a 78-58 loss at Georgia Tech, which finished 13-18. But, Zeller said, "I think this is much worse."

If there's consolation, it's that after that Georgia Tech loss last season, the Tar Heels won 12 of their final 13 regular-season games. The dispiriting loss against Georgia Tech served as a catalyst that propelled North Carolina through the rest of the season.

Overwhelming defeat

The margin of defeat at Florida State was wider than the combined margin of defeats for three of the Tar Heels' past four national title teams. The one exception is the 1993 national championship team, which on its way to the title endured a 26-point defeat at Wake Forest.

Time has healed whatever scars came with that loss but Eric Montross, the Tar Heels' senior center on that '93 team, said that one-sided defeat against the Deacons provided the Tar Heels with motivation that carried them.

"The thing I remember about our team was that there was just an absolute commitment to do what we needed to do in order to win," said Montross, now the radio analyst for Tar Heels basketball games. "And we got it handed to us that game and it was just a mindset that we were going to work hard enough to overcome that.

"And that we weren't going to make similar mistakes again."

Montross predicted this North Carolina team would respond similarly to the way the '93 team did - and he made the prediction in part because Zeller, who finished with 14 points and 14 rebounds at Florida State, played one of his best games of the season.

"They've got a guy who is absolutely committed to this as a senior," said Montross, who said Zeller's leadership would be key in how the Tar Heels bounce back.

Williams said during his radio show he was pleased with how the Tar Heels reacted in their first practice since the loss at Florida State. Monday began with a film session, and then a strenuous practice that featured more running than normal, Zeller said.

Zeller, for one, sounded Tuesday as if he wouldn't need to be reminded of the margin of defeat in the Florida State game. He sounded as if he'd have a difficult time forgetting the final score and the way the game ended - with Williams and most of his players walking off the court with 14 seconds left to play.

Williams wanted his team to leave to protect it from a postgame celebration that he suspected would be wild.

"That was the most embarrassing thing I've ever done in my life," Zeller said of leaving the court early. "Because it was to the point that I never thought I'd leave a game early because we'd lost by that much and they were going to storm the floor. It was something that I hope to never experience again."

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