Lucas: Streak Snapped
The streak meant so much to Roy Williams that he never talked about it. And you didn't talk about it either, if you knew what was good for you.
That's how much he valued having never lost on senior day. Not just as Carolina's head coach. But as a college coach, period. The Tar Heels were 10-0 on senior day when Williams was an assistant. Kansas was 15-0 in their last home game under Williams. Through the end of last season, he was 9-0 on senior day as the head coach at Carolina. That's a grand total of 34 straight wins on senior day, an incredible streak that--as head coach at UNC alone--includes four wins over top-10 teams.
You would not find those records in the media guide. You wouldn't see them in the game notes. You would not hear them mentioned around the Smith Center.
As Williams is fond of saying, he's not superstitious, but he is careful. And being careful means not mentioning a 35-year streak.
If you didn't already know how passionate he was about his senior day success, you could see it on the bench during Duke's solid 69-53 whipping of the Tar Heels on Saturday night. It took very little to get the head coach pumped up. When Marcus Paige made a basket, Williams took his watch off, the better to pump his arms and exhort his defense. Watching only the sideline, it looked like a one-possession game.
At that point, the Tar Heels were down, 61-40.
Williams loves senior day because Williams loves college basketball, and for most of his career college basketball has been about seniors. He loves--this isn't an exaggeration, he really does love it--getting to know a player and his family during the recruiting process, spending four years with him, and watching that player leave as a totally different person. Williams takes that responsibility very seriously, and part of it for him has always been allowing those seniors to leave the home floor one last time with a victory.
The biggest problem on past senior days has always been that Williams wants everyone else to love senior day as much as he does. He wants louder cheers and longer ovations and not one single fan to leave until the last senior has left the building. That is what he feels the seniors deserve, what they've worked for in his program, and it's what he wants to give back to them.
That, and a win.
As the final seconds ticked off in Duke's win, Williams turned his back to the court and leaned in to the ear of Dexter Strickland, Carolina's lone scholarship senior. It wasn't hard to figure out what he was saying.
"He apologized," Strickland said. "He told me he could've done better. But you can't blame it on him. Blame it on all of us as a team. We didn't compete like we should."
Those who know Williams know this: it is going to bother him that Strickland is the only four-year player he has ever coached who didn't walk off the court happy after his last home game. He will absolutely lose sleep tonight because of it. Tomorrow, at some point, he'll turn his attention to the ACC Tournament and how his team can get back on the roll they were on before the Blue Devils arrived at the Smith Center. But later this spring or in the summer, at some point, he's going to say, "We should've gotten Dexter that win."
But they didn't--and they were never really close. That was the mystery of this game. Sometimes a 14-0 deficit at the Smith Center feels inconvenient, like the foundation for a rally. This one felt like the Tar Heels were doomed.
For most of the night, it felt like the game all of us thought we would see in Durham, the game we'd prepared ourselves for when Carolina ventured into Cameron Indoor Stadium. That night, you had to at least steel yourself for the possibility that a decisive loss might happen. This time, though, that never felt like a possibility--until the Tar Heels were staring up at the wrong end of a two-touchdown deficit.
There will be an urge to draw conclusions from this game, to proclaim that these 40 minutes decide that Carolina's winning streak is meaningless. That might be a good theory if the Tar Heels had stolen a couple wins during the six-game winning streak. But they didn't. They won all those games solidly, including becoming the only team in the league this year to win three straight road games by 9+ points.
These 40 minutes didn't tell us that that team won't be able to reappear. These 40 minutes told us that when Carolina plays four perimeter players and one post man, shooting 7.1% from the three-point line and getting zero fast break points is quite often fatal to their chances of being competitive.
But we already knew that, didn't we? All along, the understanding with this lineup has been that Carolina must make shots. On Saturday, they didn't, and they were never competitive.
The new rotation has been credited with creating better spacing. Well, that spacing exists because there aren't two big men down on the block clogging the middle. That all sounds very modern and trendy, but another thing big men do in addition to clogging the middle is get high-percentage baskets. That's especially handy when an opponent is on a run. This year, though, in order to seize any momentum, the Tar Heels have to hope a jump shot finds the net. When they don't, well, 69-53 happens.
That's the kind of concern Williams will work on over the next five days before his team opens ACC Tournament play in Greensboro on Friday night. The much longer-term worry for him will be the end of one of his most cherished streaks.
Usually, when the postgame videos honoring the seniors are played, Williams watches with rapt attention. This time, as the accomplishments of Strickland's class were read over the PA system, Williams sat on the end seat of the Carolina bench, the seat next to him vacant, with his head in his hands.
He wanted the day to be different. He wanted the Tar Heels to make more shots. He wanted an occasional Duke shot to hit the rim and bounce away. But what he really wanted was something much more meaningful--to the program, and therefore, to him.
"Every streak has to end," Williams said after the game. "But I would've really liked for Dexter to have that feeling of going out and standing there with the crowd."
Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and the author or co-author of seven books on the Tar Heels.