COLUMN: Certified Tough

In his 15th season as North Carolina’s head coach, it’s difficult for Roy Williams to experience many “firsts.” The 68 year-old Hall of Famer has done it all while coaching Tar Heel teams to three NCAA championships, five Final Four appearances and eight ACC regular season titles.

Yet before this year, he hadn’t led a team to a 9-1 record in conference play.

That finally changed on Saturday against Miami, as the Tar Heels (19-4, 9-1 ACC) showed off the trait that Williams consistently tells his team it lacks: toughness.

Saturday offered a perfect opportunity for a trap game. UNC came off an emotional and high-flying win over N.C. State earlier in the week and Monday night’s matchup with No.3 Virginia loomed large. For 35 minutes it seemed that classic sleepy-noon-game energy would prove too much and snap the Tar Heels’ six-game win streak.

Facing a six-point deficit with just over five minutes left, Williams’ Tar Heels found that extra edge that separates good teams from great ones — forcing overtime and eventually grinding out an 88-85 victory over Miami (10-13, 2-9 ACC).

Coby White — who described his high school game as “hard-nosed” — almost single-handedly willed the Tar Heels back into the game with three triples down the stretch before he found Luke Maye open beyond the arc off a pick-and-roll. Maye buried his chance and force overtime.

Kenny Williams struggled early, but his clutch three-pointer in OT and lock-down defense down the stretch, in addition to his senior leadership, helped UNC squeak out a win. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Kenny Williams struggled early, but his clutch three-pointer in OT and lock-down defense down the stretch, in addition to his senior leadership, helped UNC squeak out a win. | Photo by Alex Kormann

In the overtime period, seemingly every Tar Heel chipped into the effort. White dished two assists, Kenny Williams hit the go-ahead three and Cam Johnson knocked down the free throws UNC needed. The moment was never too big for anyone.

“We learned a lot about ourselves today,” Kenny Williams said. “We know that when the time comes, when we need to, we can lock down and get stops. We also know that we’ve got a bunch of guys that can make big shots and make the plays that we need them to make.”

Early afternoon lethargy has taken many victims over the years. Just two years ago the Tar Heels came out flat on the road against Miami and lost 77-62. Tar Heel fans will remember how that team bounced back and went onto secure a national championship.

That’s not to say that simply winning on Saturday excuses some of the mistakes and errors that put UNC in the position to lose against the last-place team in the ACC. The Tar Heels were out-rebounded 39-32 and Maye and Kenny Williams disappeared for long stretches (Williams didn’t score for the game’s first 36 minutes).

But Saturday offered a test of UNC’s resiliency; a test the team passed with flying colors.

Despite it not being his day, Williams continued to battle and proved why his leadership is so valuable to the team. The senior guard ended the day with five points, but he also drew a key charge, blocked a shot in overtime and forced two steals — including the one on Chris Lykes that sealed the win.

As a freshman, White leans on Williams for advice and motivation and he said he wasn’t surprised by how his teammate responded.

Nassir Little dives out of bounds attempting to recover a loose-ball. The freshman had ten points off the bench for the Tar Heels on Saturday. | Photo by Alex Kormann.

Nassir Little dives out of bounds attempting to recover a loose-ball. The freshman had ten points off the bench for the Tar Heels on Saturday. | Photo by Alex Kormann.

“He was being Kenny Williams,” White said, “playing with toughness. Kenny always plays hard and with emotion and passion and he always plays with a will to win.”

Of course, Williams would rather his team go on a win-streak in March than January and February, but he said the lessons learned against Miami will prove valuable as the season progresses.

“Coach said in the huddle we hadn’t won one like this yet,” Williams said. “We didn’t want to wait until the tournament to do it, it’s good to get it in now so we know, ‘OK, we’ve been here before.’”

There are a lot of Carolina teams that wouldn’t have gutted out a regular season win like they did on Saturday. Some of those teams even have banners to commemorate their accomplishments from March and April.

If these Tar Heels are to join their predecessors in the rafters, it will be because of a wide variety of factors, ranging between defense, rebounding, scoring and luck

The one thing they know they’ll need is that exact toughness that got them the win on Saturday.

@BIgJ_KMeyer