I could probably harp on Carolina barely hanging on to beat a CAA opponent in a gym that saw UNC teams hardly ever lose to out-of-conference opponents. I could probably pick on certain players’ continual struggles with turnovers or silly plays. I could probably speculate as to why Roy Williams seemed to once again struggle with in-game strategy, not putting more bigs on the floor when William and Mary’s only interior defender fouled out of the game with 5 minutes left. But why would I? That kind of complaining and nitpicking has gotten old with all the trials and tribulations of this season, and in all honesty, this game was pure, unadulterated fun.
The Heels managed to come out on top in what was easily one of the more entertaining games they played in all year. Even better, they seemed to actually have fun and were finally able to abandon the burden of expectations they played under for much of the year. Much was made of William and Mary playing the underdog (Jimmy Dykes simply would not shut up about how Carmichael resembled a high school gym, and how the Tribe was playing like the kids from Hoosiers out there) and rightfully so, but maybe an even bigger story was Carolina finally treating itself like the team that was supposed to win. They were smiling and fist-pumping after big baskets, taking advantage of their decided size advantage, where they racked up 38 points in the paint. For once, when the opposition put together a little run or rattled in another big three, UNC managed to actually get itself together and rather than wearing an expression of “oh, here’s another loss coming” they seemed determined not to let the game get away.
This game reiterated to me that perhaps more than anything, UNC’s problem this year was confidence. Facing a team that the Heels had a decided athletic advantage against, players that have struggled with tentativeness all season long finally got aggressive, as Larry Drew and Dexter Strickland looked like the solid early-season version of themselves, and Deon Thompson racked up 20 points both stepping back and going inside. They also weren’t afraid to get a little aggressive on defense, racking up 11 steals in what was ultimately the difference-maker as they went on an 11-0 run down the stretch with multiple key takeaways from Tyler Zeller. Maybe once this team shakes off the stink of this season, there will still be some salvageable players left whose egos haven’t been broken by all the crap they got from fans this year.
And speaking of the fans, the crowd, at least on TV, finally seemed terrific. They buoyed the Heels when they needed it and lived up to the expectations everyone had for it being a great atmosphere in Carmichael Auditorium. Let’s hope Roy is serious about the team possibly playing one or two games there every year in the future - lots of fans in attendance were talking about having goosebumps being in the place. Hard to replicate that kind of feeling in the Smith Center, unfortunately.
So, I’m going to ignore the potential pitfalls of analyzing everything that went wrong and will go wrong for the rest of Carolina’s season. At this point it’s just nice to see them enjoy playing basketball again, and give us glimpses of the team we expected them to be at the beginning of the season. At this point, that’s about as much as we can ask for.