After North Carolina’s 81-79 road win over Clemson on Saturday, Roy Williams was emotional.
He had suffered a vertigo spell late in the first half and did not return to the game. But he wanted to say a few words to the media before he let associate head coach Steve Robinson, who filled in for him, take the microphone.
First, he clarified the incident was similar to what happened to him in 2016 against Boston College, when Robinson had to finish the game. Williams said he was turning around to substitute junior guard Seventh Woods into the game for Kenny Williams when he had the spell.
As Williams fell forward, Robinson caught him before he hit the ground.
The pain was excruciating at first, Williams said, but he began to feel better. He said he thought about coaching in the second half, but UNC was leading. Williams, who is admittedly superstitious, said he did not want to jinx it.
Then he thanked Robinson.
“I’m so proud of our team,” Williams said with tears in his eyes. “So proud of this guy sitting beside me for 24 years. I’m only going to do this once every two or three years, but I don’t do it intentionally. But 31 years ago, one of the best decisions of my life was hiring this guy. He’s been like a brother to me. A best friend, a guy I couldn’t be more proud of. I wanted him to have this feeling.”
Robinson, who has been an assistant under Williams both at Kansas and North Carolina and spent seven years as a head coach at Tulsa and Florida State, was thrust into the head coaching role late in the first half as UNC held a two-point lead over Clemson.
Silence had fallen over Littlejohn Coliseum as play stopped and North Carolina staff tended to Williams.
After Williams was escorted to the locker room, Robinson quickly gathered the team together. He said he assured them that Williams would be fine, and he told them that their job was to play.
“You’ve got to step right in and take command and try to direct them, because if I waffle, then what do you think they’re going to do,” Robinson said. “They’re going to fall apart. ... So it was, just, ‘hey let’s try to treat it like we do every day and try to go do the best job.’”
The Tar Heels went into halftime up 39-35. Back in the locker room, Roy Williams briefly spoke to his team to further assure them he would be OK.
In the second half, the Tar Heels, without Williams on the sidelines, finished the job.
“I knew as soon as it happened, I knew Coach Rob was going to come through,” said senior guard Kenny Williams, who hit three clutch free throws to seal the game. “I knew we were going to get something big from coach Rob and we did.”
He said having Robinson serve as the head coach didn’t change anything.
“Coach Rob is just an extension of Coach (Williams),” Kenny Williams said.
Williams, who had nine points and six rebounds, said the team knew that they had to focus on what they could control because Clemson had an upset in mind. After the first nine minutes of the second half, Clemson led 54-48.
But the Tar Heels went on an 8-0 run to take a two-point lead with 8:43 left. The run was started by a Garrison Brooks jump shot. On UNC’s next possession, senior forward Luke Maye hit a 3-pointer from the top of the key to cut Clemson’s lead to one point.
The Tar Heels got a stop on defense, and Maye scored a layup while being fouled. That seemed to shift momentum.
Clemson answered, but Kenny Williams hit a jumpshot to re-take the lead. The Tar Heels never trailed again. UNC freshman Coby White had a game-high 28 points. He was 9 of 16 from the floor and 6 of 11 from 3.
White said he felt relief after seeing coach Williams briefly at halftime. He said that allowed him and his teammates to play well in the second half.
“Clemson fought hard and they had their fans behind (them), but I feel like we just stayed composed and focused throughout and got the win,” White said.
As a team, UNC shot 35 percent from the floor and committed eight turnovers in the first half. In the second half, the Tar Heels shot 48 percent and turned it over six times. The second half was more of a group effort. White scored 11 points after halftime, while Maye, Cam Johnson, and Kenny Williams had nine each.
The win keeps UNC (24-5, 14-2 ACC) at a tie with Virginia for first place in the ACC standings. The Tar Heels already clinched a double-bye in the ACC tournament and a spot in the quarterfinals after their win over Syracuse.
They have won five consecutive games and 12 of their last 13. But none, perhaps, were tougher than Saturday’s win over Clemson, given the circumstances. When things could have fallen apart, they trusted their head coach would be fine, and that their associate head coach to lead them to victory.
And he did.
“Credit certainly goes to those guys,” Robinson said of the players. “They had to execute. I just gave them something.”