Roy Williams should know by now that no North Carolina State lead is ever out of reach.
Had he coached with this understanding on Saturday, his Tar Heels could have been on the winning end of the largest second half comeback in ACC history.
Once down 28 points to its less noteworthy in-state rival nearing the under-12 media timeout, North Carolina turned Raleigh’s raging on-court celebration into something of a grim horror show. Pressuring a Wolfpack team that initially lost its interest, then its composure as its comfy lead collapsed, the Heels stormed back and closed within single digits before their comeback fizzled out with less than 30 seconds to play.
The cruel tease was not unlike anything North Carolina has experienced before. The Tar Heels lodged a similarly tantalizing but incomplete comeback in Maui, where the team slashed a 29-point second-half Butler lead to six, only to lose by 11. If it’s any consolation, at least North Carolina went down with its best in that game.
That wasn’t the case on Saturday, when the team’s tormenting comeback attempt fell short because the best Carolina hoops has to offer this season didn’t see the floor for long enough. Exhibit A: P.J. Hairston, the sophomore sniper who led the Tar Heels in scoring on the night with 19 points. Hairston stuffed the stat sheet in just 17 minutes of action, a whopping two more minutes than quasi walk-on Jackson Simmons logged in the game. Say again?
Simmons, who spent his evening getting bullied, jeered and harassed by C.J. Leslie, was one of two primary subs for Hairston (rising freshman J.P. Tokoto was the other). Of all the players to make an example of, Williams earmarked the one his team could least afford to lose.
Then there’s the curious cameo of Luke Davis, the Gardner-Webb transfer who netted six minutes of destructive court time in which he coughed up three turnovers while getting blitzed on the defensive end by Lorenzo Brown. That’s six more minutes Roy deducted from the Hairston and Tokoto ration merely to send some artificial message to the rest of the team. There’s a time and place for that. This weekend in Raleigh wasn’t it.
Roy Williams likes to explore his bench and overcomplicate his rotations from time to time. He’s notorious for removing underperforming starters—all five at once, even—and integrating walk-ons in high-profile games as a motivational tactic. His peculiar philosophy saved N.C. State, a program disposed to squandering big leads in pressure-packed moments, from its own self-ruin. Rather than letting the Wolfpack unravel by itself, as the team is conditioned to do, Williams interfered with the Pack’s ill-fated natural course. Lucky for Mr. and Mrs. Wuf.
North Carolina’s 13-game winning streak against N.C. State is over not because N.C. State has grown up, but because the Tar Heels head coach hasn’t.