North Carolina

UNC Tar Heels, Roy Williams find relief, joy in run to Sweet 16

North Carolina coach Roy Williams reacts to a turnover by his team during the second half against Arkansas in the third round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, March 21, 2015 at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams reacts to a turnover by his team during the second half against Arkansas in the third round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday, March 21, 2015 at the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Did it mean more, this run to the Sweet 16, amid all the drama and all of the losses – the ones on the court and, more significant, the ones off it?

Did it mean more that North Carolina’s March rebirth is coming not too long after former coach Dean Smith died, and months after Roy Williams lost another one of his closest friends?

Williams, the UNC men’s basketball coach, thought about it Saturday night after the Tar Heels’ 87-78 victory against Arkansas in the NCAA tournament. It was the 750th victory of his career, and a victory that for the 32nd time sends UNC to an NCAA regional semifinal.

So winning is nothing new for Williams or for his program, and yet this victory felt different. In part because it had been three years since UNC advanced past the first weekend of the tournament and in part because of what Williams and his program have endured lately.

Once again, his players answered questions last week about an academic and athletic scandal that began before they were born, and ended before they arrived on campus. There are likely to be more of those questions this week in Los Angeles, where UNC will travel for the West Region.

And once again, victory felt a little better, tasted a little sweeter for Williams, who has come to appreciate wins in this long season of losses. In December he lost one of his best friends, his neighbor Ted Seagroves, who died of cancer. Then Smith died Feb. 7.

Williams has tried to honor, and emulate, no man more than he has Smith, who gave Williams his start in college coaching. There were times this season, after some of the more difficult defeats, when Williams openly questioned the job he was doing.

Yet here his team is, two victories from the Final Four, among the final 16 teams with hope alive of winning a national championship.

“Well, you know, I’m an emotional guy,” he said Saturday night.

Then he said, later, “I am emotional and wear my feelings on my sleeve a lot in both directions.”

Williams spoke of losing Seagroves and Smith and his “big-time buddy,” popular ESPN personality and UNC alum Stuart Scott, who in January also died of cancer. Williams spoke of Mitch Kupchak, the Los Angeles Lakers general manager and former UNC player whose 15-year-old daughter died in January.

At times this season basketball might not have meant as much to Williams. And yet it meant so much.

“It’s been a hard year, it really has,” he said. “I probably acted sillier in the locker room after this game than I have in quite a while. I’m going to try to enjoy the dickens out of this one for a while tonight.”

Williams didn’t elaborate. He didn’t explain what “acted sillier” meant, but he has been known after significant victories to dance with his players, or to jump around with them as if in a mosh pit.

He said he hoped the cameras weren’t inside the locker room to capture the moment.

The players sitting next to him after Saturday’s victory – Justin Jackson, Marcus Paige and J.P. Tokoto – were asked to describe what it meant for Williams to have “acted sillier,” but they wouldn’t budge, either.

Still they couldn’t hide the jubilation inside the locker room. UNC is among the most successful college basketball programs in history, and the most memorable celebrations are reserved for things like an ACC championship, or an appearance in the Final Four.

It had been a while, though, since the Tar Heels had won a game that meant as much as the one Saturday night. It had been years filled with drama – with scandals and suspensions, with questions about NCAA investigations, with losses too difficult to measure.

Yet for one night there was none of that. There was only a victory that brought UNC back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2012 – a victory that, for a little while, at least, brought relief to a program that’s still trying to find its way out of one of its most troubled times.

Carter: 919-829-8944;

Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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