After one of the most perplexing defeats of his tenure at North Carolina, and after a five-hour plane ride, Roy Williams went home on Monday morning and tried to sleep. Less than two hours after he put his head down, though, he was back up, restless.
“It wasn’t doing any good,” he said on Wednesday, after the Tar Heels’ 86-71 victory against Michigan, of his efforts to get some rest earlier in the week.
Williams described the victory against the Wolverines as “a good bounce-back” after what the Tar Heels experienced on Sunday: a humbling 18-point loss in Portland, Ore., against Michigan State, and a loss so ugly that Williams said afterward he’d coached as if he’d never seen a basketball game before.
It was the sort of hyperbole that Williams sometimes uses after troubling losses, though it was based in reality, too. UNC against Michigan State made just 24.8 percent of its shots – the worst single-game percentage in school history, based on available records.
Equally troubling, to Williams, was that his players rarely, if ever, matched the Spartans’ effort. And so this, the game against Michigan on Wednesday night at the Smith Center in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge, was the Tar Heels’ first opportunity to show their mettle, and their resiliency, after a defeat.
Before Sunday it had been long time since UNC lost. It hadn’t happened since March 10, against Duke in the ACC tournament. That defeat served as a catalyst in UNC’s six-game run through the NCAA tournament, to the national championship. The loss against Michigan State, meanwhile, inspired some of what the Tar Heels did on Wednesday, when they led Michigan by as many as 29 points during the second half.
“Coach asked us after the game, what was your level of focus against Michigan State,” Theo Pinson, the senior forward, said on Wednesday. “Everybody said, ‘F,’ because you see how we came out and played. Tonight was an A.”
It was, certainly, compared to what the Tar Heels delivered on Sunday, when they made only 15 of their 61 attempts from the field. After they walked out of the Moda Center in Portland, they boarded a plane for a five-hour ride back home. It was, as Pinson put it, “a sleepy plane ride.” But the rest, for those who were able to rest, wasn’t necessarily refreshing.
After the team landed, Pinson said, “We had guys coming in, 8 o’clock in the morning, getting shots up.” The Tar Heels didn’t practice on Monday, and the players had an off day, but several arrived at the Smith Center around noon for some physical therapy treatment sessions. By then, Williams had already long given up on the idea of catching up on his sleep. He went for a haircut, instead.
“To see if that would help me,” he said. “I was willing to try anything.”
Williams won his third national championship in early April. He is in the Naismith Hall of Fame. The teams he has coached have now won 822 games during his 30 seasons. And yet the losses still eat at him. He doesn’t forget them, and he doesn’t easily move on from them.
After the defeat against Michigan State, a reporter asked Williams if he’d simply burn the game tape and never watch it, given the Tar Heels played so uncharacteristically poorly. Williams bristled at the question, as if he couldn’t understand how any coach would ever consider such a thing.
“I’m not one of those coaches that’s just going to say, ‘Oh, it was a bad game, let’s go on,’ ” Williams said on Wednesday. “We spent 45 minutes yesterday watching Michigan State tape before we watched the Michigan tape.
“Because, we make those kind of mistakes and have people outwork you with more intensity, more effort, I think you’ve got to show it. And so we did that, and then we tried to move forward to Michigan.”
After an 11-day road trip, UNC welcomed the chance to play at home. Kenny Williams, the junior guard, said he felt “goosebumps” running out of the tunnel, because it’d been so long. The Tar Heels on Wednesday needed less than 15 minutes to equal the number of shots it made during the entire game on Sunday. By halftime against Michigan, they’d scored six more points than they did in 40 minutes against Michigan State.
In the process, they made what happened on Sunday more of a distant memory, though one that can still be a motivating force. Re-watching the Michigan State game on Tuesday “wasn’t good at all,” UNC senior point guard Joel Berry said, but Williams’ insistence that his team study it paid off.
“The biggest thing is, I told the guys, just don’t panic,” said Berry, who with 17 points was one of three UNC players, led by Luke Maye’s 27, who scored in double figures on Wednesday. “We’ve had seasons where we’ve lost early, and the rest of the season went well for us.
“So it’s not a time to panic, it’s just a time to get better.”
UNC improved on Wednesday, days after its worst defeat in almost five years. It had been that long, since a December 2012 defeat at Texas, that the Tar Heels had lost by at least 18 points. And they’d never a lost a game shooting as poorly as they did earlier in the week.
It was a defeat Williams took especially hard but, then again, he receives most losses in a similar way. He described it as a failure in coaching, and then went to work to figure out how that failure transpired.
“It just says something about him,” said Kenny Williams, who scored 11 of his 12 points during the first five minutes on Wednesday. “He doesn’t want to put the blame on us. He wants to take all the blame for the losses.
“But we know that we have to play better, because we’re the ones out there playing. Him saying that, that’s when we realize, hey, we’ve got to do better.”
And so the Tar Heels did better, after one of their most humbling losses in years.