Under normal circumstances, North Carolina’s unexpected trip to the Greensboro Coliseum on Sunday would have been a precursor to the Tar Heels beginning the NCAA tournament next month on the same floor, where they have enjoyed such success in the past.
The Tar Heels’ 7-0 NCAA record here is one of so many deep ties to this building, for both North Carolina and Notre Dame. The Irish won the 2015 ACC tournament here by beating the Tar Heels, who have won eight of their 18 ACC titles in Greensboro. Among arenas, only Reynolds Coliseum can claim as revered a place in the history of the conference as this one.
But this will be North Carolina’s only game in this building this season, thanks to House Bill 2, the so-called bathroom bill. Those opening-weekend NCAA games will be played instead in Greenville, S.C. The ACC tournament, scheduled to return in 2020, is in jeopardy as well.
Barring a shift in the political winds, Sunday’s 83-76 North Carolina win will be the last ACC game played in Greensboro for a long, long time.
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“You know, I’m glad that some people in Greensboro got to see us play,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “I’m glad we were able to take a game here because of that stupid rule that we have in our state that took a lot of great opportunities for people in our state, and great athletes that like to do things in our state. I shouldn’t say rule, I guess it’s a law. A law’s more important than a rule, I guess. But I just think that’s ridiculous, and what it’s doing to our state and the reputation of our state.”
After a hockey game was postponed because of too much water and not enough ice and a basketball game was postponed because of too much ice, a basketball game was postponed because of not enough water.
Still, the water crisis in Chapel Hill was no laughing matter – and take a moment here to think of the people of Flint, Mich., who have been without potable water for almost three years – and both the university and the coliseum did a remarkable job turning this game around in less than 48 hours when the Smith Center couldn’t host the game as scheduled Saturday afternoon, and there was no guarantee on Friday that it would be ready Sunday.
As it turned out, on Sunday afternoon the taps were flowing and the bathrooms open again – “and in Chapel Hill, you can use any bathroom you want,” Williams said – but going to Greensboro turned out to be a pleasant diversion from midseason monotony. Just like ACC tournaments past, this was a neutral site, technically speaking, despite the North Carolina fans who filled the lower bowl and almost all of the upper bowl. The atmosphere was tremendous, March in February.
“It felt like a home game to me, even though it wasn’t at the Dean Dome,” North Carolina guard Joel Berry said.
There were no complaints from Notre Dame – other than Wake Forest’s inability to push their game Tuesday to Wednesday – as it gave Mike Brey’s team the chance to play at a place close to his ACC heart and important to his program’s history. Two years ago, Notre Dame came back from nine down in the second half to beat North Carolina for the title. Sunday, the Irish were down by as many as 15 but cut it to two with 3:47 to go before Berry hit a momentum-killing jumper and the Tar Heels pulled away.
“We have great memories of this building,” Brey said. “We just needed a little more of the karma. … I said, ‘Fellas, it has the same feeling. We’ve been here before. It has the same feeling. I think we’re going to have a chance at this thing.’ And we did. We made a run at it.”
It was also, potentially, the last ACC game ever played in Greensboro, assuming HB2 continues to hang over the state like a toxic cloud. At the pace repeal is proceeding, the building will crumble to dust before the conference has a chance to return. While the next five years of NCAA events within the state’s borders are in day-to-day danger, the 2019 (Charlotte) and 2020 ACC tournaments will be in the same tenuous position in a month or two.
With HB2, there are obviously bigger issues with civil and human rights than basketball, but this kind of game, in this building, epitomized what basketball means to North Carolina. Instead of celebrating that tradition Sunday, we may have been bidding it farewell for the foreseeable future.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock