This Saturday morning found me as most have in recent weeks: huddled with my friends in a line outside of the Dean E. Smith center. Congregated under my roommate’s oversized golf umbrella, the half-dozen of us waited beneath a gray Chapel Hill sky and watched as puddles encroached. It was cold and my bed was much too far away for my liking. But everyone present knew that foregone sleep in a dry bed was simply the going rate for a much sought after commodity: revenge.
The Heels had an ax to grind on Saturday and certainly played like it, finally bringing a level of intensity worthy of the name on the front of their jerseys. Though it was far from a perfect performance, the boys in blue made further strides along what has been a steady learning curve as of late.
Freshman Marcus Paige continued to show improvement at the point, notching 8 assists against 0 turnovers and putting up 14 points. Paige looked comfortable running the show in the game’s closing minutes and once again proved himself to be a valuable asset at the charity stripe, knocking down 4 late free-throws to keep the wolfpack out of striking distance.
Of course, Paige’s progression seems to have been expedited by Roy Williams’ decision to go with a smaller lineup. With fewer big men crowding the paint, both Paige and Dexter Strickland have excelled in finding open driving lanes to the basket. Also of note is the sudden reappearance of the fast break. In the 4 games since P.J. Hairston was inserted into the starting lineup, the Heels have fought their way to a 77 to 38 advantage in points off turnovers, indicating that Coach Roy’s four guard experiment has not only paid dividends in the half-court, but in the transition game as well.
The most noticeable transformation on Saturday, however, took place off the court rather than on. Carolina played in front of an absolutely electric crowd that was hungry for payback. For the first time this season the risers behind the basket were filled to the brim, each step stacked two people deep. Student turnout was so high that the cheerleaders (who were somewhat surreptitiously implemented in the front row of the risers during Winter break games and who have, much to the chagrin of the students who wait in line hours before each game’s tipoff, remained there throughout the conference schedule) resumed their original post along the sideline to make room for the horde of blue-painted and, in many cases, rain-soaked undergrads.
The capacity crowd was voracious, exploding with each Tar Heel bucket and making its presence known during each crucial defensive stand. When James Michael McAdoo picked off a lazy pass by Lorenzo Brown at the top of the key and took it the length of the floor for a reverse jam late in the first half, the Dean Dome shook at its foundations. It was the loudest I’d heard the Smith Center since witnessing Harrison Barnes throw down a filthy put back dunk against Kentucky two years ago.
And the noise wasn’t limited to the regular die-hards found along the home baseline. In fact, one of the game’s loudest moments occurred midway through the second half when a “Let’s go Tar Heels!” chant erupted from the student general seating behind the home end-zone and was echoed by just about every Carolina fan in the building.
Stay focused, but stay angry. I like us when we’re angry.