KANSAS CITY, Mo. – As North Carolina coach Roy Williams turned out of the Tar Heels’ locker-room mosh pit – something that’s become a staple of UNC’s program following a big win – his eyes were drawn to a white board that sat on an easel in the corner. Alongside the number 32 written inside a box, illustrating how UNC’s 78-71 win against Villanova propelled the Tar Heels into the next round of the NCAA Tournament, sat a freshly drawn “700.”
Hairston led the way again for the Tar Heels, as he poured in 23 points on the night.
It was the handiwork of junior Reggie Bullock, who snuck out of the group celebration to pen the new tally of Williams’ career wins. As Williams began hugging and shaking hands with his team, Bullock reappeared with another surprise. Adorned on a blue jersey were the number 700 and the name Williams.
“It was special because Coach didn’t even know we had the jersey for him. He wasn’t expecting it at all,” P.J. Hairston said. “Coach got a little emotional because it shocked him.”
Williams has deferred any credit for UNC finding success since going small, saying it was more about individual player development than a coaching change. Even in his postgame press conference, he said win No. 700 just meant that he’s been around for a long time and that he’s had great players.
This one, though, Williams earned. This one only happened because Williams made a move that 700-win coaches make.
After UNC built a 20-point lead in the opening half against Villanova, Williams stood on the sideline as the Tar Heels gave up a 33-12 run that bridged halftime and gave the Wildcats a one-point edge with just fewer than 14 minutes remaining.
Villanova was owning the paint, as forward JayVaughn Pinkston was scoring at will, and the Wildcats were dominating the boards. UNC only had two second-half rebounds more than 11 minutes into the half.
The Tar Heels’ woes in the paint derailed everything UNC tried to do. UNC only made two field goals during a 13-minute stretch, and it didn’t even attempt a 3-pointer during that time. On the defensive end, the Tar Heels had no answer for Pinkston and the Wildcats, who carried every bit of momentum as the second half progressed.
“They just started going inside every possession,” freshman point guard Marcus Paige said. “They were really powering it inside to Pinkston, and that got their momentum going and their defense involved. They started getting some turnovers and had us flustered. It really started with them getting inside – we had no answer for them.”
Bullock presented Williams with a '700' jersey after the head coach gained the victory.
That’s when Williams made a vintage move of his, as he pulled all five players on the court and replaced them with seldom-used reserves. But, that’s not the move that made the difference. It was with those five guys on the bench when Williams turned his back to the action and preached to his team what it needed to do to win: One, find some toughness; Two, double-team the post.
Williams put in a big lineup, which included former walk-on Jackson Simmons, and told the Tar Heels to put two bodies on Pinkston anytime he touched the ball near the rim.
Pinkston had 15 points and six rebounds before Williams made the change with 14 minutes to go. The rest of the way – five points and two rebounds. By limiting Pinkston – and using the bigger lineup to start winning rebounds – UNC slowly turned the tide back its way.
The Tar Heels started getting defensive stops and running more-efficient offensive possessions. A few minutes later, Hairston and Bullock combined to hit three 3-pointers in a 1:18 stretch to push the Tar Heels ahead by nine points with five minutes remaining.
“They were just killing us. We had to make a change and change their rhythm,” Simmons said. “It really changed their pace and got them taking bad shots. That got us out in transition, and we were able to get good shots.”
Paige contributed a clutch 3-pointer late in the game, and the Tar Heels were eventually able to leave the Sprint Center with a seven-point win.
Hairston led UNC with 23 points, including five 3-pointers, and McAdoo’s first-half efforts allowed the Tar Heels to surge to such a large lead. UNC shot better than 52 percent from behind the arc and held Villanova to 4-of-21 long-range shooting.
But, UNC’s opening-round victory didn’t come from winning statistical battles. It was a critical move by Williams that did the trick.
The Tar Heels were on life support, and it looked like Villanova would avenge 2005 and 2009 tournament losses by storming back from an early 20-point deficit. Williams didn’t panic. He went with what he knows best – a two-forward lineup – and won the game by winning the post.
“We had some difficult moments out there. The small lineup’s gotten all the attention, but I thought it was hurting us,” Williams said. “There were a few moments, to say the least, that were really, really ugly. I love the mental toughness of our team the last eight or nine minutes.”
For 699 wins, Williams said the players won the games, not him. For the most recent, it was all Williams.