Three years later Roy Williams on Saturday recalled the conversation – the time Larry Fedora, the North Carolina football coach, called Williams with a question. As Williams, the UNC basketball coach, told it on Saturday after the Tar Heels’ 90-82 victory against Boston College, Fedora “wanted to know if I would let a football player play basketball.”
Williams said yes. At the time Ky Bowman, a wide receiver at Havelock High, had committed to play football at UNC. He changed his mind and decided to pursue his passion for basketball. On Saturday it seemed like a good decision, what with Bowman, the Boston College freshman guard, scoring 33 points against the Tar Heels. UNC offered Bowman a chance to play football on scholarship, but not basketball.
“He was unbelievable,” Williams said, before thinking up a quick one-liner.
“Tell Larry he needs to do a dadgum better job of recruiting.”
Williams called it “The Ky Bowman Show,” and that was an apt description. Bowman’s 33 points tied his college high, and this was the third time – in 20 college games – that he has scored at least 30 points.
If Fedora had hung on to Bowman’s commitment, the Tar Heels might have found themselves a little better equipped to handle the personnel losses they’ll endure in football. As it was, though, Bowman and another North Carolina native, Jerome Robinson, provided Williams’ team with some difficult lessons – especially about the work the Tar Heels have left to do on defense.
Winning on the road is rarely easy in the ACC – just ask Syracuse and N.C. State, both of which in recent weeks entered Boston College’s Conte Forum and left with defeats – and so the No. 9 Tar Heels (18-3, 6-1 ACC) took some measure of satisfaction in winning, period. And yet this isn’t exactly how Williams and his players prefer to win.
Bowman at times had his way, especially when he scored 13 of his 21 first-half points during the 5½ minutes before halftime. The Eagles (9-11, 2-5), who were expected to do little this season and were picked to finish last in the ACC, shot 55.9 percent in the second half. The Tar Heels attempted to extend their lead throughout the second half, only to watch it shrink back again. And again.
“Couldn’t get any defensive stops,” Williams said.
The Tar Heels on Saturday won their sixth consecutive game. They scored at least 85 points in all of those, and this is the first such streak in school history: six consecutive conference games with at least 85 points. The defense, though, has at times lacked – like it did for long stretches against Bowman and Robinson, a former standout at Raleigh’s Broughton High.
Neither player received a basketball scholarship offer from a North Carolina ACC school. Several UNC players said on Saturday said they could sense the motivation from Bowman and Robinson, sense that they played as if they had something to prove.
“If I was in that same situation,” UNC forward Theo Pinson said, “I’d be trying to do the same thing.”
Williams said he “didn’t know very much” about Bowman the basketball player during his high school years. And then there’s Robinson, the Eagles’ leading scorer who finished with 18 points. How had he remained such a relative unknown among North Carolina ACC schools despite playing near three of them at Broughton?
“I have no idea,” Williams said. “... I know that we lost several guys that we were recruiting early, and I can’t tell you if he made an early decision to BC or not. If he had made a late decision, I’d really be mad.”
He was mad enough at times with what his players did defensively. Bowman excelled in a variety of ways, either through penetration or spot-up shooting. Robinson, meanwhile, accelerated through UNC’s defense at one point in the second half and finished with a dunk that brought some in the sold-out Conte Forum to its feet. The play cut UNC’s lead to 52-50 with 13 minutes remaining.
It was close like that throughout much of the second half, until Joel Berry’s 3-pointer with a little more than one minute to play gave the Tar Heels a nine-point lead. Berry, the junior guard, finished with nine points, while Justin Jackson, the junior forward, led UNC with 22. Senior forward Kennedy Meeks finished with 20, and helped the Tar Heels exploit their talent and size advantage on the interior.
For UNC the victory, though, came with a caveat: It has to become more consistent defensively.
“I think we’re good,” Berry said. “But we can get better. If we lock in as a team and defensively we get after it, it’s hard to beat us. But sometimes we just, hey, we make a mistake and the teams take advantage of it.”
Berry said the Eagles “just shot the ball and they made it.” In moments, it was true.
Some of the 13 shots Bowman made from the field came under defensive duress. UNC usually made Robinson work for his points.
Still, the Tar Heels have aspirations much grander than grinding out an ACC road victory in mid-January. The goal, as it has been all season, is to get back to where they were early last April – to the final Monday night of the season.
They reached that point last spring in large part because of their defense, which was never better than it was during the NCAA tournament. Williams on Saturday lamented how, defensively, the Tar Heels this season have been “up and down more than I thought we would be.” He didn’t discount what UNC lost in Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, but Williams had been hoping for more consistency.
Saturday two North Carolina natives UNC didn’t recruit illustrated Williams’ point. Bowman, and to a lesser extent Robinson, left the Tar Heels with some lessons about how far they have yet to go to become the defensive juggernaut they were toward the end of last season. In moments there were short flashes of defensive success for UNC.
“But we have to be more consistent in it,” said Kenny Williams, the sophomore guard. “Our defensive effort isn’t always as consistent as it should be. Some nights we bring it. Some nights we don’t.”
Even in victory, this was one of those days for UNC.