UNCASVILLE, Conn. — One week earlier, Roy Williams had apologized to his players after one of the most troubling defeats of his tenure at North Carolina. On Sunday, after the Tar Heels 93-84 victory against No. 3 Louisville, Williams walked into an ecstatic locker room and participated in the jubilation.
There was dancing and hollering and bumping around, as Williams described it, after one of the Tar Heels most unlikely victories in a long time. Nothing foreshadowed what UNC did here on Sunday at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
Not the loss a week earlier against Belmont. Not the sluggish victory against Richmond here on Saturday. Not the sense that UNC (4-1) appeared unlikely to compete among the best in the nation without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, their two most experienced guards.
Yet there was Williams after a victory to savor on Sunday, celebrating with players who already felt like theyd been forsaken given the circumstances that surrounded them. Since early June, when Hairston was arrested in Durham, it seemed to be one negative thing after another for Williams and his team.
Then came Sunday. The Tar Heels victory snapped Louisvilles 21-game winning streak, and it was UNCs first against a top-5 opponent since it won at Duke in the final game of the 2011-12 regular season.
Theres no question its satisfying to be able to have some good things to think about, Williams said on Sunday. I mean, since June 5 its not been a very pleasant time. Its been probably the most difficult time Ive ever had as a coach.
But today out on the court, watching those kids and seeing their excitement, bumping around with them there in the locker room and celebrating thats what I coach for. To have those feelings of being with a group of kids who really feel like they accomplished something. Thats what I coach for.
Inside the Tar Heels locker room, sophomore Marcus Paige sat surrounded by a throng of reporters, attempting to put into words the most significant victory of his time at UNC. For the second consecutive game, Paige set a career-high. He had 26 points against Richmond on Saturday, and 32 against Louisville.
It makes sense for other people outside of who we are to be surprised, Paige said. Obviously, Louisville is No. 3 in the country. We just came off a bad loss (against Belmont). We struggled against some teams that arent as talented as us.
But we werent surprised at all, because weve had practices where weve played this well. we have talent, (but) were just still coming together as a team.
Paige, who finished the game with four fouls, helped UNC overcome Louisvilles frenetic press. And when he went to the bench with foul trouble in the second half, Nate Britt, a freshman point guard who would likely be receiving far less playing time if Hairston and McDonald were eligible, filled the void.
Both Britt and Kennedy Meeks, a forward and fellow freshman, were instrumental in the Tar Heels victory. Britt finished with 9 points and five assists, and successfully penetrated the Cardinals defense. Meeks, meanwhile, had 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists several coming on long outlet passes over Louisvilles defense.
Meeks on Saturday scored just one point against Richmond and was one of the worst players on the planet, Williams said. Williams spent time speaking with Meeks on Saturday night and again on Sunday before the game.
It was me wanting to be that post presence, Meeks said of what changed. I feel like I was today.
The Tar Heels trailed by nine early, but Paige tied the game at 44 with an off-balance 3-pointer just before the first half ended. In the second half, Britts layup with 18 minutes remaining gave the Tar Heels a 49-48 lead, and they never trailed again.
UNC gradually extended the lead to 10 points with 11 ½ minutes left, and to 16 with about six minutes left. The Cardinals (5-1), the defending national champions, tried to pressure UNC into turnovers, but often couldnt. And even when Louisville did, the Cardinals struggled in their half-court offense.
Senior guard Russ Smith (36 points) and Chris Jones combined for 56 points, but the rest of the team faltered. Paige and Brice Johnson, the sophomore forward who finished with 13 points on Sunday, spent significant time on the bench during the final 10 minutes, but the Tar Heels, who shot 56.7 percent in the second half, never wavered.
That was a contrast to the final minutes of the Belmont game, and to several games a season ago.
We really (hadnt) won a big game in a while, James Michael McAdoo, the junior forward, said on Sunday. I can name them. Kansas, Texas, Indiana (last season). A bunch of games last year we just didnt show up ready to play. And just to get this game today, its just huge for this team.
McAdoo returned for his junior season, and even before it began it felt like the Tar Heels were under siege mostly thanks to Hairstons summer of trouble. Hairston and McDonald havent yet played amid NCAA eligibility concerns, and neither made the trip to Connecticut.
Given that ongoing saga, and the Belmont loss, Paige said he felt as though some had already given up on UNC.
You hear stuff on campus, he said. Our fans are some of the most passionate ever. You hear them going crazy saying, hey, if we dont beat Richmond, we dont have to play Louisville that kind of thing.
Even after the Belmont loss, though, Paige said he and his teammates believed. They wanted the opportunity they earned on Sunday, and then celebrated a victory that was even more satisfying given what UNC had endured before experiencing it.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter