Have you heard the one about the time North Carolina “blew out” James Madison in the 1982 NCAA tournament? Roy Williams, the Tar Heels coach, has only told it “a thousand times” lately, he said on Tuesday.
The story was topical again days after his team escaped the second round of the NCAA tournament with a 72-65 victory against Arkansas on Sunday in Greenville, S.C. The Tar Heels rallied then from a five-point deficit with three minutes to play, and scored the game’s final 12 points.
Now Williams on Tuesday was trying to think of other close NCAA tournament victories that paid off in ways that went beyond the win itself. His mind flashed back 35 years, to 1982. Williams was an assistant coach under Dean Smith.
UNC was a No. 1 seed, just as it is now. And just as it did on Sunday, UNC did its best Houdini, disappearing unscathed when it appeared most in peril. On Sunday it was a seven-point win against No. 8 seed Arkansas; in 1982 it was a two-point victory against ninth-seeded James Madison.
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“We had Worthy and Perkins and Jordan,” Williams said. “Those are three pretty good players. And Dean Smith on the bench. And we blew out James Madison, 52-50. In Charlotte, I think.”
The location sounded like the only hazy detail in Williams’ mind. That UNC team went on to win the national championship, Smith’s first. Now the Tar Heels are hoping to build off of another close victory, another escape act in which they needed a little bit of magic.
One of the primary short-term benefits of what UNC accomplished on Sunday is easy enough to measure: It’s still playing. Its season continues on Friday in Memphis, Tenn., site of the South Regional, against Butler, the No. 4 seed.
The long-term benefits of the Tar Heels’ victory against Arkansas, meanwhile, might not be quantifiable for another two weeks or so. Williams and his players are hoping it’s the kind of victory that inspires belief, which is the one intangible the Tar Heels kept talking about after it ended on Sunday.
Joel Berry, the UNC junior point guard, has the word “believe” tattooed on one of his arms. Berry and his teammates kept repeating the word in those tense, maddening final minutes on Sunday, when UNC began that 12-0 run just when it seemed to be at its most vulnerable.
“I remember coach in a timeout was like, ‘We haven’t won a game like this all year,’” Theo Pinson, the junior forward, said on Tuesday. “And after thinking about it, we haven’t. And just to pull that one out on a stage like that just gives you confidence of even though we’re down, we’re not out.”
Indeed, the Tar Heels had won games in a variety of ways this season, but not like that. They’d won in blowouts. They’d survived close calls against the likes of Tennessee and Clemson and Pittsburgh.
Until Sunday, though, they had not turned what appeared to be a likely defeat into victory. Williams on Tuesday acknowledged the common thought after a win like that: That those kinds of victories can be a valuable experience, to survive in such a way.
He sounded a bit skeptical, but not entirely dismissive of the idea. Williams said he wished the Tar Heels had won “two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10” like that. For now he’ll take the one.
“It shows that when you’re really focused and you’re concentrating and giving all the effort you can give, some good things can happen,” he said.
Arkansas didn’t score on its final six possessions on Sunday. UNC, meanwhile, quickly erased its deficit and then increased its defensive pressure, forcing the Razorbacks into difficult shot attempts toward the end of the shot clock.
When the comeback ended, the Tar Heels spoke of having survived. Their season was minutes away from ending and, with it, their season-long goal of returning to the Final Four and to the national championship game. Now there’s a sense of renewal.
“To be a great team and to be a championship team, you have to win in a bunch of different ways,” Justin Jackson, the junior forward, said on Tuesday. “And I think that game, coming back from adversity and playing against a team that played that hard and was playing that well, I think that’s going to be key for us.”