Roy Williams began feeling it on the way back home from North Carolina's loss at Virginia on Saturday night – this overwhelming pressure to win on Monday night against Syracuse. He felt it because he has grown to love his senior class, and this Tar Heels team.
“I don't know that I've ever felt as much stress over a regular-season game as I did tonight,” Williams said on Monday. “... Because I just wanted Brice (Johnson) and Marcus (Paige) and Joel (James) so much to win their last home game.
“To me it was more important than any game I've ever been involved with.”
He was speaking after UNC's' 75-70 victory against Syracuse – a win in which the Tar Heels found their way in the final moments, after their 13-point second-half lead had turned into a 69-68 lead with about 2 ½ minutes to play. It was, in some ways, similar to UNC's game against Duke two weeks ago.
In that one seventh-ranked UNC led throughout the second half and led by eight points with seven minutes to play, only to lose. The Tar Heels appeared frazzled that night and they lacked composure and they didn't make winning plays when they most needed to make them.
And then came Monday night. The Orange cut UNC's once-commanding lead to a point. The Smith Center crowd sat nervous, again, watching what appeared to be another collapse.
But then Paige penetrated and passed to Isaiah Hicks, who finished one a play with a layup to push UNC's lead back to three points with two minutes left. And not long after it was Johnson in the lane, rebounding a missed shot and scoring on a short jumper to extend the lead to five points.
Two seniors playing in the Smith Center for the final time, both doing what they could to make sure the final memory they created here was a good one. Not that Williams could have spoken in much detail afterward about either moment.
The drama during the final moments of the game was no match for what came after, when Paige, Johnson and James addressed the crowd and shared emotional remarks on senior night. That part, the seniors addressing the crowd, is tradition and was expected.
What was unexpected, though, was that when the players finished their speeches Williams took the microphone himself. He said he'd only talked like this, publicly, on one other senior night during his coaching career.
“The reason I wanted to say something," Williams said, “... (is that) the last three or four years around here have been very difficult.”
He referenced “the stuff” and “the junk,” as he put it, that has surrounded his program during that span. The impermissible benefits case that in 2014 affected the eligibility former players P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. The lingering, and unresolved, NCAA investigation.
Amid all of it, Williams said, this team provided “an outlet” – and a positive one – for Williams to escape.
“This may be my favorite team of all time,” Williams told the crowd, his voice cracking with emotion.
It was high praise given that Williams has coached two national championship teams at UNC, and because this group of players has never advanced past an NCAA tournament regional semifinal. These Tar Heels will have a chance to change that during the next month.
On Monday night, though, they celebrated the kind of gritty victory – one that grew more and more in doubt, until UNC finally put it away in the final minute – that has eluded the Tar Heels at times this season, and in recent seasons.
In his final game at the Smith Center Johnson led UNC with 14 points and 10 rebounds – his 18th double-double of the season. Paige struggled to find his shot, as he often has this season, and missed eight of his 10 field goal attempts but he finished with eight assists.
His comments to the crowd afterward didn't lack for emotion, either.
“I love you, man,” Paige told Johnson, his classmate and roommate. “You're like the brother I never had, and I'm going to cherish that the rest of my life.”
Johnson's play in the second half was most instrumental in UNC's victory. He entered halftime with four points, and frustrated.
“I was just frustrated the entire game,” Johnson said. “I mean, coach got on me at halftime. He was like, I need you to get that look off your face. But I wasn't, like, pouting. I was just upset at the fact that I got two fouls, and I'm just trying to be out here helping my team win.”
He was there when UNC needed him to be. And so was Paige, despite his shooting struggles.
Now UNC is one victory away from finishing in first place in the ACC. That was among the Tar Heels' preseason goals.
“It means a lot,” Paige said of the chance to win the ACC regular season championship on Saturday with a victory at Duke. “Now we've got to do it.”
The Tar Heels found a way to do it on an emotional senior night.