All these years later, the expression has stuck with Roy Williams. He repeated it again to his players Sunday, before North Carolina’s game against Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament East regional championship game:
“We didn’t come this far, just to come this far.”
It’s something of a popular saying, a motivational cliché of sorts. To Williams, though, the phrase goes back nearly 40 years to his days at Charles D. Owen High in Black Mountain. That’s where he became a head coach for the first time. There was a player on Williams’ teams named Porky Spencer.
“That’s just what we called him,” Williams said on Monday, after he and his team had returned in the wee hours of the morning after UNC’s 88-74 victory against Notre Dame. “Needless to say that it is not his full name. But we called him Porky.”
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And Porky shared that saying with the team one day and with Williams, its young coach. Williams liked it from the start, and liked it enough to use it in the pregame speech he gave to the Tar Heels on Sunday afternoon.
Later, amid the game’s tensest moment, Marcus Paige thought about Porky’s old words, too. The Fighting Irish had just erased an 11-point deficit in “no time,” Paige, UNC’s senior guard, said.
“I look up,” Paige said, “(and) I’m like, ‘Dang. We’re down. What just happened?’ ”
There was little time to think, little time to process how the Tar Heels had lost their lead and, in some ways, lost control. All Paige knew was that he and his teammates needed to take it back again.
He addressed the team not long after, during a quick huddle, and offered a reminder.
“Guys – this is what we’ve been working for all year,’” Paige said in UNC’s locker room after the game, reciting those words he shared during the game. “We didn’t come this far just to come this far.’ That was kind of our thought for the day.”
It was a thought that spread from a kid they called “Porky” to Williams and then, 38 years later, to Paige. Perhaps it was coincidence, that the Tar Heels were at their best after Paige recited the thought of the day – the message that they hadn’t come this far just to go back home.
Or maybe it wasn’t coincidental. Regardless, UNC was at its best on Sunday night after Notre Dame took that brief 52-51 lead with 13 minutes remaining.
Paige responded almost immediately with a shot that gave UNC the lead again. A couple of minutes later Isaiah Hicks punctuated the Tar Heels’ 12-0 run with a dunk off of an alley-oop pass from Theo Pinson, the sophomore forward.
“That just provided us with extra energy,” Hicks said.
Seemed that way, at least. Hicks’ dunk represented the final two points of the 12 consecutive points that UNC scored after it lost the lead.
Notre Dame had gone on its own 12-0 run to take that brief lead. And then the Tar Heels responded with a 12-0 run of their own.
Inside the UNC locker room, there was a sense afterward that the Tar Heels had some something they wouldn’t have been able to do in past seasons, or even earlier in this season. So many times before in recent seasons they’d lost second-half leads and wilted in tense moments.
And then came the definition of tense: an 11-point cushion gone in a flash, the momentum evaporated, the opposition surging ahead amid something of a UNC meltdown, one that included Brice Johnson’s technical foul for tossing the ball high over his head after he committed a foul.
All those things happening in a game to decide a trip to the Final Four.
“It was dumb,” Johnson said of his technical. “It was very, very dumb on my part. I really hurt my team in that moment and it’s just something I have to learn from.”
Even if he hadn’t quite learned about controlling his emotions, Johnson knew this much, though. He knew how past UNC teams might have responded to the moment of truth, one that came amid his technical and the loss of the lead.
“Last year we probably would have folded,” Johnson said. “... It could have went a totally different way off of that technical. They could have went on a bigger run than what they did.
“But my teammates really stepped up on the defensive end and got a lot of stops and they scored on every single possession after that.”
It wasn’t too much of an exaggeration. After the Tar Heels lost their lead with 13 minutes to play they regained it on their next possession and scored on the next 12 consecutive possessions after that.
During a span of a little more than eight minutes the Tar Heels scored every time they had the ball. That stretch began after Notre Dame’s 12-0 run.
“They really answered it like men,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said. “And we didn’t have much left.”
And so it was the continuation of a role reversal. UNC lost a 15-point lead in a defeat at Notre Dame earlier this season. The Tar Heels lost a 12-point lead in a loss against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament championship game last year.
So many other times in recent seasons UNC had lost leads, and lost games. And then it lost the lead again on Sunday.
“And this year when we started losing a couple of games,” Paige said, “people questioned us and basically said it’s the same team as last year, they don’t have what it takes – don’t get too excited, they were overrated to start the season.”
The Tar Heels are writing a new story, though. One of the lines in there is an old one but one Williams liked enough to share with his guys on Sunday: They hadn’t come this far just to come this far.
Williams and Spencer – the kid they called Porky – are still close. Williams called Spencer “a young man” on Monday, and Williams tried to call him on the phone, too, to thank him for those words that provided some guidance on Sunday, when UNC won a game to reach the Final Four for the 19th time.