KANSAS CITY, Mo. - Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams picked up his 700th career victory when North Carolina defeated Villanova 78-71 at the Sprint Center on Friday. But after the game, Williams said he was equally as proud of another number.
That’s how many wins Williams’ current crop of Tar Heels has achieved during what some would call a transition year. Considering UNC had four players selected in the top 17 of last summer’s NBA draft, the coaching job Williams has done in 2012-13 is one of the more impressive of his career.
Friday’s victory propelled UNC to a third-round NCAA tournament game against either Kansas or Western Kentucky. That hardly seemed like a possibility three months ago, when the Tar Heels were manhandled by a struggling Texas team that a few weeks earlier had lost to Division II Chaminade.
“It was terrible,” guard Dexter Strickland said about the loss. “We didn’t have any experience. We didn’t know how to play with each other yet. We didn’t know the level of intensity we needed to play with as a team. We were just trying to find ourselves.”
“We’ve come a long way since then,” he said.
Indeed, North Carolina finished third in the ACC with a 12-6 record. During Friday’s first half, the eighth-seeded Tar Heels looked capable of making one of the more unlikely Final Four runs in school history.
Williams’ squad led by 20 points in the first half. The basket must’ve looked like hula-hoop to the Tar Heels, who shot 50 percent before the break.
North Carolina, however, became complacent in the second half and allowed the ninth-seeded Wildcats to take a 45-44 lead.
“We thought we were good enough to win this game,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said.
The Wildcats (20-14) almost did, keeping it close until the waning minutes, when some timely 3-point shooting by Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and Marcus Paige helped North Carolina to victory. The Tar Heels closed out the win by making their last seven field goal attempts.
“There were a few moments, to say the least, when we were really ugly,” Williams said. “I loved the mental toughness of our team in the last eight or nine minutes.”
Williams deserves credit for developing that toughness. Hairston, Bullock and James Michael McAdoo are NBA-caliber players, but certainly not at the level -- at least not yet -- of some of the lottery picks of UNC’s past. This team has needed more molding and grooming and coaching than recent Tar Heel squads.
That’s why, in some ways, win No. 25 (against 10 losses) felt just as fulfilling to Williams as victory No. 700.
“I’m human,” Williams said. “I wanted to get 700. I’d like to get 800, 900, 1,000, 1,500 ... but I know that’s not going to happen.
“My focus was not on that, it really wasn’t. I was trying to get No. 25 and have this team stay and play in another game.”