By the time North Carolina started putting some distance on overwhelmed, outmatched Georgia Tech at the Smith Center, it was easy to start thinking ahead to Sunday’s public memorial honoring the arena’s namesake.
Roy Williams was apparently thinking about last Wednesday, when the Tar Heels lost in overtime at Duke, and this Tuesday, when N.C. State comes to visit.
That’s the most logical explanation for the timing of his unexpected diatribe about the home-court atmosphere, or lack thereof, after Saturday afternoon’s 89-60 win. It spilled out in one of those Roy-being-Roy moments that leave open to debate whether he just couldn’t hold back, to his own detriment or he knew exactly what he was doing with two home games left – against N.C. State and Duke.
The Tar Heels ran the Four Corners on their first offensive possession in an on-court homage to Dean Smith, and the plan was to hold the ball for 20 seconds as the entire bench stood and held four fingers in the air. But Marcus Paige found Brice Johnson for a back-door layup so quickly that, unlike North Carolina’s throwback uniforms, the surprise throwback tribute escaped the notice of anyone not paying close attention.
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“I’m a little disappointed more of our crowd didn’t have more savvy, but I felt like they were asleep most of the day anyway, so it was about all right,” Williams said.
Wait, what? And Williams was off. As athletic director Bubba Cunningham looked on glumly from the back of the press room, the coach so fond of golf metaphors teed off.
“It’s not intended to be criticism, but it’s criticism,” Williams said. “We need some daggum help. We’re going on the road and people are screaming like banshees or something and today it was like every time I yelled at a player, they turned around and looked at me. I yelled at a player Wednesday night, they never knew I was over there fricking yelling. They thought I was doing exercises.
“If you want to act like I’m chastising the fans, tell them to come in and invest. Come and invest. We need some help when we play back here. Don’t sit over there and feel like we have to entertain you.”
While the Smith Center can be relatively sedate by big-time college basketball standards, Williams said he didn’t have any concerns about the crowd earlier in the season, even in lossesto Iowa, Notre Dame and Virginia. He clearly felt the need to say something Saturday, with the already subdued atmosphere of a noon tipoff unquestionably more somber on the eve of Sunday’s public memorial for Smith.
And Williams didn’t hesitate to invoke Smith in his criticism.
“I can tell you one guy that was disappointed in it. That guy right up there,” Williams said, pointing to a video monitor in the back of the room displaying Smith’s face and memorial details. “He would have been disappointed in our crowd.”
To be fair to the crowd, which included dozens of Smith’s former players, Saturday’s game was utterly lacking in frisson once the Tar Heels started pulling away, and even J.P. Tokoto’s requisite big dunk – taking off from just short of the free-throw line to posterize two Georgia Tech defenders in the lane – came in the first half.
There wasn’t much on display in the second half other than the ritual dismantling of a bad team by a good one, as North Carolina bounced back nicely from Wednesday’s heartbreaking loss at Duke, Paige especially with 13 points, 10 assists and no turnovers.
“We still have a chance to play them again,” Paige said. “We still have a chance to make some noise at the end of the season.”
So, from Williams’ perspective, does the Smith Center crowd.
“Show up with your lungs rested on – when do we play again?” Williams asked.
Williams surely knew the answer to that question even as he asked it.