If North Carolina becomes the kind of team coach Roy Williams believes it can, if the Tar Heels end their season in early April in Houston, at the Final Four, they might well remember a November night in Kansas City as a defining, forging moment.
UNC here on Tuesday night at the Sprint Center was a few minutes away from its second loss in three games. Kansas State led by eight points with about 4 ½ minutes to play, and the Tar Heels until then had lacked the ability to make a momentum-turning shot, or come up with a critical defensive stop.
“Last year at that point in the game,” senior forward Brice Johnson said later, “we probably would have folded.”
Instead the Tar Heels finished the game on a 21-3 run, one that propelled them to an improbable 80-70 victory against Kansas State in the Hall of Fame Classic championship game. The victory wasn't so much improbable based on the expectation entering Tuesday night.
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Until Monday, after all, UNC had held the No. 1 national ranking. The Tar Heels entered the season with national championship aspirations. Yet the longer it went on Tuesday night, the more improbable victory seemed.
Kansas State held UNC to its lowest scoring first half of the early season: 30 points. The Wildcats, buoyed by thousands of purple-clad supporters who love Kansas State victories only slightly more than they love to see Roy Williams lose, led throughout the second half.
Through the first 36 minutes, there was nothing to indicate that the Tar Heels had a late comeback in them – that they'd flip the script and, for once, erase a second-half deficit instead of surrender a second-half lead, as they'd done on Saturday in a loss at Northern Iowa.
To make matters worse for UNC, the one player it'd usually rely on during these times – senior guard Marcus Paige – was sitting on the bench, watching for the sixth consecutive game instead of participating while he recovers from a broken bone in his hand. So UNC seemed doomed.
Except Williams, the UNC coach who brought much turmoil to Kansas State during his years at Kansas, liked where his team was with less than four minutes to play. The Tar Heels trailed by eight, and appeared out of it, but Williams believed.
“I felt like we were in good shape,” he said. “That our team could be made right now. And a team is made during the season. It's not made in preseason practice. The team – the whole chemistry of everybody, the toughness of everybody, is made once you start playing the games.”
The Tar Heels trailed by five with 3 ½ minutes remaining and then there was a timeout. Williams drew up a play then for Joel Berry, the sophomore point guard who Williams later described as a “tough little nut.”
It had not been Berry's best game. He had missed all four of his 3-point attempts up to that point. Yet Williams believed in Berry the way he believed that his team could turn things around late. It was blind faith, as much as anything.
“My own thinking (was) he had stunk it up so bad I thought it was about time he'd make a play,” Williams said of Berry.
And so Williams drew up a play for Berry. He took his man to one side of the court, and then used two screens on the baseline to free himself in the corner in front of the UNC bench. The ball came to him and he released the shot and immediately, Berry said, he knew it felt good. It was.
The 3-pointer cut Kansas State's lead to two. Moments later it was a tie game after Justin Jackson, the sophomore forward, made a floater in the lane. And then seconds after that, Kennedy Meeks, the junior forward, made a steal near mid-court and lumbered his way to the basket for the go-ahead points.
“I just wanted him to lay it up,” Williams said. “I didn't want him to hang himself up there. But everybody did some things to help us.”
That wasn't exactly true during the first 36 minutes. But it was during the final four minutes – the time when UNC so often faltered last season, and did again days earlier during that loss at Northern Iowa.
When Paige suffered his injury days before the start of the season, Williams and his players attempted to spin it the best possible way. It would be an opportunity for others to emerge, they said. It could help the team grow up, they said. It could, possibly, benefit the Tar Heels in the long run.
But they missed Paige in uneven victories against Fairfield and Wofford and missed him, especially, at Northern Iowa – a game that was scheduled to give Paige, an Iowa native, a homecoming. And then it looked on Tuesday night for the longest time like UNC, again, missed Paige more than it was growing in his absence.
And then the final four minutes happened.
“I think it would make (guys see), they don't have to look, 'OK, where's 5? Where's 5? He's got to do something for us now,'” Williams said, referencing Paige's uniform number. “They realize that we were able to make some plays today without him. …
“So everybody will have some confidence and when the little rascal gets back, I think it will help us.”
No one should have more confidence upon Paige's return than Jackson, who led the Tar Heels with 22 points on Tuesday night. When UNC's three-game Midwestern road trip began last weekend, Jackson was still in the throes of a mini-slump to start the season.
He broke out of it with 25 points at Northern Iowa, his first of three consecutive games with at least 21 points. On Tuesday night he carried back to the locker room a plaque he received for being named the Hall of Fame Classic's MVP.
He'd made plenty of important shots on Monday, during the victory against Northwestern, and again on Tuesday night. None more important than the one he made to tie the game during the Tar Heels' final, decisive run.
“That was the first game,” Jackson said, “that we were down when we showed some toughness to come back, out of the two years that I've been here.”