After he’d said that this was the “luckiest I’ve ever felt after a basketball game in my entire life,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams walked into his team’s locker room on Thursday night and assumed a fighter’s stance, his fists up.
Brice Johnson, the Tar Heels’ junior forward, joined him momentarily and they pantomimed a boxing match, and Kennedy Meeks entered the fray and all around them UNC players laughed and reveled in a small, light moment – one that only existed because a bounce of a basketball went UNC’s way.
That was the margin for the Tar Heels on Thursday night during a 67-65 victory against Harvard in the NCAA tournament. If the Crimson’s Wesley Saunders had made the 3-pointer he attempted in the final seconds, UNC’s season likely would have ended.
Williams and his players would have walked back into the locker room and packed their things. Their season would have been over. They would have gone back to Chapel Hill. Williams, for the first time, would have coached a team to a loss in its first NCAA tournament game.
“Lucky,” Johnson said, before saying it again. “That’s all I’m going to say. We are lucky. Because if that would have went in – man. It would have been a whole different feeling in here right now.”
Around him the mood was jovial. Players scrolled their phones and told jokes and laughed. Williams came back in and horsed around for a few minutes.
But about 15 minutes earlier, in the aftermath of a near-meltdown – UNC, the No. 4 seed in the West Region, surrendered a 16-point second-half lead only to reclaim victory in the final minute – the atmosphere had been much different. Williams had expressed much more anger.
“He screamed at us,” Kennedy Meeks, the sophomore forward, said. “Because he was a little disappointed. He says he’s the luckiest coach in the world.”
That’s what Williams told his players and what he told reporters. That’s what he told anyone who would listen. In 24 NCAA tournament appearances he had never lost before in the tournament’s opening game but the fate of that streak – the fate of UNC’s season – was out of his hands in the final seconds.
It was in the hands of Saunders, who released his last shot from near the top of the key. He had a good look at it, though the shot appeared long from the release. It hung up in the air, rotating, spinning, and what went through the Tar Heels’ minds as their season hung up there with it?
“You’ve got a million emotions and thoughts running through your mind other than trying to get the rebound,” Paige said. “It’s a situation you don’t want to be in a lot during the tournament because fate has a way of finding teams.”
It had found Georgia State earlier in the day on the same court and at the same end of the floor inside Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena. In that game, a 3-pointer in the final seconds gave 14th-seeded Georgia State an improbable comeback victory against Baylor, a No. 3 seed.
Then 13th-seeded Harvard (22-8) created its own magic. Or at least benefited from a host of UNC mistakes. During one second-half stretch that ended with Harvard’s four-point play with one-minute, 15 seconds remaining, the Crimson outscored UNC (25-11) 31-13.
The Tar Heels, plagued by turnovers throughout Thursday night, committed no shortage of them during Harvard’s rally. The Crimson, which shot less than 30 percent from the field during the first half, discovered an offensive rhythm, too.
Harvard prefers a slow, methodical pace, and UNC wanted to force turnovers to create its desired tempo. It was Harvard’s ability to force turnovers, though, that kept the Crimson in the game – and nearly won it the game.
The Tar Heels committed 17 turnovers and Harvard turned those into 29 points – the most any team had scored this season off of UNC’s turnovers. The disparity in points off of turnovers was also higher than it had been in any game this season. UNC scored just six points off Harvard’s seven turnovers.
The Tar Heels did, though, create points in transition when they most needed to score. After Harvard’s Siyani Chambers missed a 3-pointer with 30 seconds to play, J.P. Tokoto threw an outlet pass to Paige, who then passed to an open, streaking Jackson.
His dunk with 24 seconds to play broke a tie at 65, and those points were the game’s last. But then Jackson’s dunk also gave possession back to Harvard. Chambers missed a 3-pointer with 16 seconds left and Harvard fouled Meeks, who missed a free throw.
And then came Harvard’s final chance. The seconds ticked away and the people in attendance stood. An entire season’s worth of practices and games – all the early-morning workouts and solo shooting sessions, all the meetings and road trips and late nights – came down to one moment.
Saunders released his attempt and it bounced off the backboard, first, and then hit part of the rim before falling away. The horn sounded and it was over and UNC celebrated, at least then, in the immediate aftermath, before Williams set a different mood in the locker room.
“I asked Justin Jackson if he had ever made a big shot to tie the game and another shot to win the game and his coach went and screamed at him and reamed him out in the locker room, and he said, ‘No,’” Williams said.
Williams said Harvard’s comeback – and his team’s late-game problems – had driven him “whacko.” But it hadn’t driven him and his team out of the tournament. For UNC there was a sense afterward of anger and disappointment, Paige said, in how it played in the final minutes.
Mostly, Paige said, there was this: “Relief.”
He paused for a moment and recognized the scene that surrounded him and looked at Williams, happier now, messing around with a few of his players.
“As you can see,” Paige said, “we get to play Saturday. So we can’t hang our heads.”