The home crowd was ready, even if the Tar Heels weren’t.
The Smith Center atmosphere Saturday afternoon was appropriately wild, seeing as it was the first home game since Carolina routed top-ranked Duke in the highest-rated weeknight telecast in ESPN history — despite Zion’s famous injury 34 seconds in.
Unlike a bandbox where tickets were going for as much as 10 grand and the list of celebrities attending began with Barack Obama, the Dean Dome was perhaps the largest-ever close-knit gathering. On a weekend afternoon, kids and parents were everywhere, members of the Carolina Basketball Family came out in numbers and the fawning fan base filled the last rows of the upper deck.
A company named Tykes had bought the marketing rights to caricatures of the players, placing cardboard cutouts in the concourse, handing out enlarged Tar Heel faces in the risers and putting personal cartoons on the back of each player’s Nike shooting shirt (although fans might have preferred a busted size 11 shoe).
Tykes turned to Yikes when freshman Nassir Little drove the lane for a flying dunk that began stretching Carolina’s first-half lead to 13, which the team mostly lost as Roy Williams hustled through the home tunnel barking like a pit bull at no one in particular. The unheralded Little played very big with another house-rocking slam dunk in the second half.
Following the eventual 77-59 victory, Williams said he still can’t find a discernible pattern to how his teams will play after upsetting a No. 1-ranked foe, which his Jayhawks and Tar Heels have now done a record eight times. The 2019 edition looked like it was ready to blow out the Seminoles in the first half before eventually getting the job done to the crowd’s delight.
Slowly but surely, Williams is shaking the sometimes-divided loyalty of fans that greeted his first ten years or so, when he once groused after winning a national championship that his approval rating in North Carolina was only 76 percent. “What does the other 24 percent want?” he sniffed.
Nowadays, Roy drives the crowd crazy when he appears, tossing his four rolled-up t-shirts into the student section, long before PA announcer Tony Gilliam intones, “The University of North Carolina Tar Heels, COACHED BY ROY WILLIAMS!” during starting lineups.
At 68 and one of five ACC coaches working with Medicare coverage, Ol’ Roy seems to be getting younger as the building once known for a wine and cheese crowd now sounds more like a thousand champagne corks popping for two hours.
(featured photo via Todd Melet)