North Carolina coach Roy Williams spent the week being mean, in his words, and coaching his team as hard as some of his players could ever remember. There was running, followed by more of it, followed by what happened on Saturday in the United Center: an 82-74 victory against Ohio State.
It was the kind of win Williams might appreciate the most, because it likely left him content for long stretches – the first 33 minutes or so – but it also featured enough mistakes, enough bad things, for Williams to bemoan in an effort to make his team improve.
After the Tar Heels, who led by as many as 18 points, stumbled their way into their locker room amid an unimpressive and ugly finish, Williams was asked to make an opening statement. He didn’t miss a beat.
“Opening thoughts is thank God it’s Christmas, let’s get the crap out of town, enjoy Christmas for a while,” he said. “That’s the opening thought. We were fortunate. I thought we did some really good things.”
That those two thoughts could exist side-by-side – that No. 24 UNC (8-3) was fortunate and that it did, in Williams’ words, “some really good things” – told the story of the Tar Heels’ trip to Chicago on a gray, cold weekend. They were fortunate, in some ways, that their sluggish finish didn’t cost them more.
For the majority of the game, the Tar Heels successfully navigated the challenges of Ohio State’s zone defense. And for the majority of the game, UNC played as well defensively as it had all season.
UNC led 43-31 at halftime and by as many as 16 points late in the first half. The Tar Heels equaled that lead, its largest, a few times in the second half – the last of which came with eight minutes, 40 seconds to play. Then, well – it got sloppy.
What to make of this, then? How did Williams balance what happened for so long against what happened late? At one point during the final two minutes the Tar Heels missed seven of their 10 free throw attempts, which allowed the No. 12 Buckeyes (9-2) some hope. But Ohio State –which shot 34.7 percent, its worst performance since a loss at Louisville earlier this month – kept missing.
“A coach can’t say, ‘Oh, gosh, we were really good for 33 minutes, I’ll forget how we stunk it up the last seven,’ ” Williams said. “That just doesn’t happen. … We were controlling the game, and then all of a sudden. ...
“I can’t separate (the beginning and the end). If any coach can separate that he’s a better man than I am.”
The Tar Heels overcame another off shooting night from Marcus Paige, the junior guard who finished with 16 points despite making four of his 16 shots from the field. Paige and the rest of UNC’s guards had no shortage of success, though, working the ball around Ohio State’s zone – and working it inside, especially.
Junior forward Brice Johnson led UNC with 18 points and nine rebounds, and Kennedy Meeks and Joel James combined for 16 points. Six Tar Heels scored at least eight points, which is representative of the kind of balance UNC seeks.
“My first two years I played here, we didn’t throw the ball inside very much because James Michael (McAdoo) was a pick and pop guy. And our bigs were young. Brice was young.
“Kennedy … he was young and overweight last year. Joel hadn’t developed at the rate he has yet. So now that we can throw the ball inside, it just makes our entire offense more balanced.”
Johnson, whose inconsistent performances have been maddening at times for Williams, played one of his best games of the season. On a day when UNC shot just 44.6 percent overall, Johnson made eight of his 10 shots from the field.
He said he was inspired by what he described as “mean Roy” – the version of Williams that was present throughout practices last week. Johnson said Williams gathered the team and showed them highlights – or lowlights, rather – of the Tar Heels’ lopsided victory against UNC Greensboro.
“And there were two plays we didn’t sprint back, and they got layups,” Johnson said. “So that was really embarrassing for us to watch – and it infuriated him.”
The effort was there – especially early on – for UNC on Saturday. The Tar Heels better took care of the ball – though they finished with 15 turnovers – and they held Ohio State’s leading scorer, D’Angelo Russell, to 11 points on 4-for-17 shooting from the field.
Indeed, there was much to like for Williams. Except for the ending, when Ohio State cut UNC’s lead to eight points on several occasions, and then down to seven but came no closer despite the Tar Heels’ barrage of missed free throws. To escape with victory, Williams said, left him “extremely relieved.”
“I’m not sitting up here saying I’m as happy as you can possibly be,” he said. “I don’t hear the happy song in my ears right now. We stunk it up down the stretch, and I think we’ve got to get better there.”