The number 700 was written in giant numbers on a white board in the North Carolina locker room, not by the hand of any coach, not by Roy Williams, but by Reggie Bullock.
Williams said over and over again that he cared more about win No. 25 – for this team, this season – than his 700th win, but earlier, with the team, he was more emotional, when Bullock gave him a jersey commemorating the feat.
“He wasn’t expecting it at all,” North Carolina’s P.J. Hairston said after Friday’s 78-71 win over Villanova. “He’s proud, but he wasn’t thinking about 700, as you can tell.”
It was a strange path from 699 to 700, with the Tar Heels shooting the lights out in the opening 12 minutes, making five of their eight 3-point attempts and opening up a 17-point lead.
Villanova adjusted, pressuring the perimeter, switching screens, and the Tar Heels gave it all back. Collapse felt imminent, and both Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo acknowledged it was the kind of situation the Tar Heels likely would not have survived earlier this season.
Williams benched the starters, en masse, and delivered instructions not only to double Villanova forward JayVaughn Pinkston in the post, but to show some mental toughness. Jackson Simmons, part of the five-man line change, stayed in the game as a screener and rebounder, and the little-used sophomore forward proved the key to unlocking Villanova.
He played the final 9 1/2 minutes of the game, missing two free throws late, going right back to the line and missing a third. His teammates came over and hugged him before he took the fourth, which went in for the final point of the game.
“It’s all good because we won,” said Simmons, who grew up not all that far from Williams in the western end of the state, on the other side of Asheville. “We were in a good situation right there and I just tried to redeem myself.”
So that was No. 700. Williams remembers No. 1, with Kansas in 1993, at the Great Alaska Shootout. He said “UAA” a few times as Paige and Hairston sat next to him with baffled looks on their faces, until Williams turned to them and explained that it meant Alaska Anchorage. They were win No. 1, California was No. 2, then eventual national finalist Seton Hall was loss No. 1.
For Williams, that was 698 wins and 178 losses ago, none of the latter ever coming in the first game of the NCAA tournament, a streak that reached 23 on Friday. He would have preferred to get No. 700 in Chapel Hill, but here, an hour from Lawrence, where he spent 15 happy years, wasn’t so bad either.
“You know, I’m human,” Williams said. “I wanted to get 700. I’d like to get 800, 900, 1,000, 1,500, but I know that’s not going to happen. But my focus was not on that. It really wasn’t. It was trying to get No. 25 and have this team stay and play another game.
“You know, when something like that happens, you usually like to have it at home where all your family and friends can be there. If I was going to choose another place, this place was a fantastic place for 15 years of my life.”
And now Kansas lurks again, the top-seeded Jayhawks facing Western Kentucky in Friday’s late game, the same team that ended North Carolina’s season a year ago, the same team Williams coached for 418 of those wins.
It would be a cruel reward for hitting their milestones, 700 for the coach and 25 for the team, each one mattering more to the other.