CHAPEL HILL, NC — Every once in a while, a coach has to dig deep into his bag of tricks to find a rare, but at the time, right button to push to straighten out his team.
Roy Williams found himself in such a moment Saturday afternoon, and despite not having the quality of options he’s had in years past, the North Carolina coach still found the magic touch. His move worked, and was integral in his Tar Heels overcoming rival North Carolina State, 72-59, at the Smith Center.
With 13:25 left in the game and the score tied at 42-42, Williams removed three starters – Dexter Strickland, Reggie Bullock, and James Michael McAdoo – and reserves Leslie McDonald and Brice Johnson for five players off the bench.
Starting point guard Marcus Paige was joined by Desmond Hubert, Jackson Simmons, J.P. Tokoto and Luke Davis, the latter four of whom totaled just 14 minutes of action on the afternoon.
With unpleasantries hailed from the crowd at the Hall of Fame coach for what one fan screamed was “basketball suicide,” Williams turned to his regulars and barked away as the action went on behind him.
Williams has done this before, often in key games. His belief is that sometimes you just have to send a message, and sacrificing a minute or two of the game is usually worth making such a message.
“I was just ticked off,” Williams said. “I thought we were getting lackadaisical and casual with everything we did…. I don’t think that was the deciding factor in the game, but I do thing when those guys came back in with a better sense of purpose, and that’s probably the biggest thing we got out of it.”
The group of Paige and four subs left 108 seconds later with UNC (19-8, 9-5 ACC) trailing 49-45. They didn’t lose the game, after all. And most important, the message was sent. And while Williams said it wasn’t a big factor in the game, the evidence suggests something different.
UNC scored four quick points, and with it offensive execution sharpening and defense stiffening, the Heels eventually used an 18-2 run to turn a 55-52 deficit into a 70-57 lead.
“The five that was out there, including me, we were stagnant on offense and we were taking bad shots,” said Bullock, who finished with 22 points, 13 rebounds and 3 assists. “And when he put the five in, we sat on the bench and seen the easy shots that the five that went in got.
“They were moving, cutting, setting screens. Marcus ended up with a 3-point shot. He (Williams) just wanted us to go out there and move the ball fluidly and make sharp cuts.”
An interesting development in the bench lineup is that Paige was suddenly the most experienced and best offensive option on the floor. And instead of shying from the moment, he took it upon himself. He missed a beautiful driving layup, but hit a key 3-pointer that helped keep N.C. State (19-8, 8-6) at bay until the other regulars re-joined him in the court. Those were his first points of the afternoon, but not his last.
“You have to be able to step up and make big shots at times like that,” said Paige. ‘If defenses are leaving you open they are basically challenging you to make a shot like that. To step up and knock it down for my teammates was really big for me.”
Paige scored all 14 of his points from that point on, including a 3-pointer that put UNC ahead for good at 57-55 with 7:15 left. Considering his performance against the Wolfpack and their sensational junior point guard Lorenz Brown in Raleigh – 7 points, 4 assists, 3 turnovers and a rough night on defense and managing the game – this was a monumental step forward for the Iowa native.
“My little freshman is a tough little nut, and he’s getting better and better as we go along,” Williams said. “He didn’t play particularly well at Georgia Tech the other night, but other than that he’s been playing very well lately.”
Paige finished with 14 points, 8 assists and zero turnovers. It was the kind of grown up experience that helps move a team forward, and that’s the direction UNC is clearly headed.
As Williams noted, a month or so ago his team may have wilted with N.C. State took a 4-point lead following a 21-11 run in the second half. But not this team. Not when it’s chemistry keeps getting better, it’s becoming tougher, and its coach will go to great lengths to push the right button.