North Carolina's 96-71 victory against Miami on Saturday began with Joel Berry's jump shot that fell clean through the rim but really it began days before that, on Thursday, after the Tar Heels' most difficult defeat of the season.
They'd endured a one-point loss against Duke on Wednesday night, when the Blue Devils rallied from an eight-point deficit in the final minutes while UNC collapsed amid a long stretch of poor execution and curious decision-making. What followed was a long night and longer morning.
“It wasn't good,” Isaiah Hicks, the junior forward, said of the aftermath of that defeat.
“It was pretty bad after the game,” Brice Johnson, the senior forward said.
And that was just Wednesday night. The next morning Johnson and Hicks and their teammates returned to campus.
“It was just disappointment from 20,000 people, really, walking around sad,” Marcus Paige, the senior guard, said on Saturday. “And then in the afternoon we got in and started working out. It was quiet.
“No one really had anything to say for a while. We just wanted to get some work in, and I think having everybody together, we weren't laughing and joking or anything – it was pretty serious.”
The game against Miami on Saturday felt like a defining moment, a mark of delineation for the Tar Heels. With a victory they'd have a chance to set their season back on a promising course. And with a defeat?
“Everybody would have been like, 'What happened to the Tar Heels?'” Paige said. “We would have lost sight on a lot of our goals that we have set since day one.”
Now there's a new question: If a defeat on Saturday would have surrounded UNC by questions about their direction how might this kind of victory, perhaps UNC's most complete and dominant, propel the Tar Heels?
There was no emotional hangover for UNC on Saturday. No slow start. No discernable carryover, in any aspect, after what happened at the Smith Center against Duke on Wednesday. What there was, instead, was an emphatic statement – a victory that gives UNC sole possession of first place in the ACC.
The Tar Heels on Saturday rediscovered the shooting touch that went missing against Duke and made nine of their 20 3-point attempts. They shot a percentage that would have challenged for highest of the season until some late misses knocked UNC down to 54.2 percent overall.
They were balanced, with six players scoring in double figures, and aggressive and when UNC had a chance to put the game away after leading 42-33 at halftime, it did. UNC, which missed 12 of their 13 3-point attempts against Duke, made three 3s in the first three minutes of the second half on Saturday.
The last of those, which came from Justin Jackson, gave UNC a 55-34 lead with 17 ½ minutes remaining. Moments later Miami coach Jim Larranaga was calling for time.
It was the second time he'd called timeout during the first 3 minutes, 10 seconds after halftime. The timeouts did little, though, to slow UNC, which outscored Miami 31-10 during the first 10 minutes of the second half.
“Well,” Larranaga said afterward. “That's what happens when one team plays really well and the other doesn't play well at all. They had our number from start to finish.”
During the final seven minutes of that defeat against Duke on Wednesday night, UNC could do little right. It was the opposite for 40 minutes on Saturday, when the Tar Heels led by as many as 38 points with a little less than seven minutes remaining.
During a film review session on Friday Williams showed his team only two plays from the Duke game. One was UNC's final possession, when poor spacing and the failure to set a screen doomed the Tar Heels. The other play, Johnson said, “was when (Marshall) Plumlee just ran down the middle and got the rebound in the first half – ran past all of us and just got it.”
Attention to detail, effort – Williams wanted to remind his players that those things were critical. And yet he didn't want them dwelling in heartbreak. That's why he kept short the film review session from Wednesday night and told his players, “That's all we're going to talk about it.”
“I wasn't going to lay down on my side and say, 'Woe is me,'” Williams said. “I told them I didn't want to hear any of that junk from them, either, and they took care of it.”
They did in a way that suggested UNC moved on quickly from what had transpired earlier in the week. Johnson on Saturday led the Tar Heels with 16 points and 15 rebounds – his 16th double-double this season – and Hicks, who started in place of Kennedy Meeks, finished with 12 points.
The bright spots for UNC went on and on, though, from Jackson's 15 points to Theo Pinson's 10 points and five rebounds to UNC's overall shooting prowess to the Tar Heels' defensive success against Miami's ball screens that had given UNC problems in the past.
Paige, who spent more time on Saturday at point guard than he had in another other game this season, said he wasn't sure after Wednesday how the Tar Heels would respond from the Duke defeat. He said he had a good idea, though, after an especially focused practice on Friday.
He and his teammates, Paige said, “realized that how we responded from (the Duke) game could define our entire season.”