In Roy Williams' world, there's the ACC tournament and “the big tournament,” and the purpose of the first is largely to get ready for the second. Wednesday was different. This was the rare early ACC tournament game North Carolina really wanted. And actually needed.
With the Tar Heels heading into the postseason after a senior night loss to Miami and Saturday's loss at Duke, this was a team in desperate need of a little positive reinforcement. While a win over Syracuse wouldn't mean much by itself, it would mean a lot in context – especially when the alternative would be heading into “the big tournament” on a three-game losing streak.
And if the Syracuse fans who boorishly yelled out “Let's go Orange!” during the moment of silence for Woody Durham provided a little additional motivation, then so be it.
North Carolina led by 21 at one point in the second half; Syracuse cut it to nine with four minutes to play, causing Williams to try to rip his coat in half in anger. (He failed.)
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In a day full of comebacks in Brooklyn, successful and otherwise, the Tar Heels had to fend one off as well. But they did, and won comfortably, 78-59, the only higher seed Wednesday to advance to the quarterfinals.
“We knew we had to come in and take care of business,” said Kenny Williams, who led a defensive effort that held Tyus Battle and Frank Howard to 8-for-39 shooting. “We never talk about, 'oh we lost two in a row, we've got to get this one.' But we know it's March, it's tournament time. After the last game, we were saying, 'it's go time.' I think everyone had extra pep in their step tonight.”
There's no question some of the pressure is off. Theo Pinson – with a very Pinsonesque line of 16 points, 11 rebounds and six assists – was upbeat even by his standards. Asked why North Carolina was so effective around the rim, he dead-panned “getting me the ball.” When Williams hinted that it was Pinson's quick-trigger shot that provoked the attempted destruction of his coat, Pinson pointed out that he thought “being honorable mention all-ACC gave me some leeway.” (It did not.)
Miami is next, allegedly at 9 p.m., but if Wednesday is any indication, closer to 9:45 p.m. By Williams' rules, the delayed start to the Syracuse game left North Carolina very little time to celebrate.
“I used to say that I wanted to enjoy one victory until 12 midnight,” Williams said. “What time is it now? 12:02? So I guess we can't even enjoy the hell out of this one for two minutes.”
But the Tar Heels will, regardless. Miami awaits. With the byes extinguished and only eight teams remaining, the ACC tournament can begin in earnest. North Carolina, at least, appears to be back in the right frame of mind.
Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock