The North Carolina buses pulled up to the team hotel at a little before 10:30 here on Wednesday night to the sound of the Tar Heels' fight song playing inside the lobby and to the sight of UNC banners and logos plastered all over the walls, the doors, the elevators.
The Tar Heels had arrived for the Final Four, and there was a welcome waiting: the fight song, people in the lobby waving pom-poms and shaking cowbells. Earlier in the day they'd prepared the scene here at the Hilton near the Houston Galleria.
On one of the pictures outside stood a taller version of Nate Britt. The real Nate Britt, the Tar Heels' 6-foot-1 junior guard, walked past it without paying attention.
“He didn't see it,” Roy Williams, the UNC coach, said with a smile. “Because I just asked him back there – he may have run outside with his bags to see it.”
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Williams was one of the first ones off the first bus. He wheeled in his luggage and his players followed.
Some of them looked up at all the decorations and took in the scene. Others walked through the lobby with their heads down, looking focused. Williams has been here before. None of his players, though, have ever experienced a Final Four.
“And so just looking around, they're wide-eyed and bushy-tailed trying to see what's next,” Williams said.
What was next a day of acclimation in Houston. The Tar Heels will practice here on Thursday and then convene at NRG Stadium – the 71,500-seat behemoth of an arena – for some media sessions and other obligations.
There will be more meetings and practices and interview sessions and press conferences and shoot-arounds and team meals before Saturday, when the Tar Heels play against Syracuse in the second national semifinal. For now, though, Williams just wanted his players to get some rest.
Earlier in the day they'd practiced for the final time this season in the Smith Center. UNC's goal the past two weeks had been to practice again in the Smith Center because, if they did, that meant its season was still going.
Now there are no more practices back in Chapel Hill. Just one final trip of the season.
“(The) pageantry and the whole bit of the Final Four is something I want our kids to really enjoy,” Williams said.
The whole experience began Wednesday night, with the welcoming party and the fight song that played on a loop and all the hooplah upon arrival at the hotel. In the lobby there were cookies waiting for the players – for anyone, really – with the Final Four logo on them.
Williams picked one up and stepped before the assembled TV cameras to talk about being in Houston.