Where there was despair and disbelief on Wednesday, there was only laughter Saturday. North Carolina could do no wrong. Even Brice Johnson's late, offhanded heave from under his own basket just after the halftime buzzer went through the hoop, as did all the 3-pointers the Tar Heels missed against Duke.
Somehow, the North Carolina team that blew out Miami on Saturday is still the same team that contrived to lose to Duke on Wednesday. These are the Tar Heels, for better and worse – an erratic-shooting team that doesn't always play to the best of its ability but can look like the Harlem Globetrotters when it does.
That's how the second half went Saturday as the Tar Heels quickly built a lead so big Miami coach Jim Larranaga pulled his starters with 10 minutes to play to rest them ahead of a quick turnaround to play Virginia on Monday. North Carolina scored on its first five possessions of the second half to blow the game open in a way the Tar Heels never could against Duke, on their way to a 96-71 win.
“That's the greatest feeling,” said Isaiah Hicks, inserted into the starting lineup for Kennedy Meeks, the primary change to result from Wednesday's loss. “That's what we wanted.”
The intense criticism of Roy Williams after the Duke game, especially his last-second inaction, was generally deserved but the Tar Heels have bigger issues than coaching. Collectively, it isn't a great shooting team, and the defense, especially in ball-screen or isolation situations, is prone to collapse.
The former wasn't a problem against Miami – the Tar Heels went 9-for-20 from 3-point range, including three garbage-time misses, after going 1-for-13 against Duke – and the Hurricanes never pushed the Tar Heels on the latter, settling for bad shots instead of rescreening. All of that, Larranaga said, had more to do with what how things turned out Saturday than North Carolina “bouncing back” from the Duke loss.
“If a team loses and you start coming up with incredible reasons why the team lost – teams lose from time to time,” Larranaga said. “As good as they are and as good as this league is, you're playing against good teams most every night. And that team, they shot the ball great from the perimeter, they rebounded well, they dominated us.”
Saturday's winner would sit in sole possession of first place in the ACC either way, while moving only incrementally toward a conclusion. Miami still has to play Virginia, Louisville and Notre Dame while North Carolina still has N.C. State, Virginia, Syracuse and Duke. In addition to these two, Virginia also has to play Clemson and Louisville.
This only counts as one loss for Miami, despite the circumstances, just as Wednesday's loss to Duke only counted once for North Carolina, despite the circumstances. The Tar Heels' season didn't end Wednesday night any more than they clinched a spot in the Final Four with the way they played Saturday.
“The of the matter is we were 10-3 and tied for first in the Atlantic Coast Conference and every coach in the country would take that,” Williams said about the mood, post-Duke. “I wasn't going to lay down on my side and say 'woe is me.'”
Williams shrugged off much of his team's three-day turnaround – “Things look better when the ball goes in the basket,” he said, one of his favorite aphorisms – but felt feisty enough to return to the interview room after completing his postgame comments to deliver a lengthy rant refuting speculation by Doug Gottlieb on CBS' pregame show that Williams would retire and turn the team over to assistant coach Hubert Davis.
If only Williams could respond with such confidence to matters regarding his team. It seems like it's just as hard for Williams to know what to expect from the Tar Heels on a game-to-game basis as it is hard for fans to pin them down.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock