CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When Monmouth coach King Rice was introduced Sunday afternoon at the Smith Center, the standing ovation went on for so long that tears started to well.
“When the crowd did that, and then I thought it was over but it kept going -- it got me, it really got me. And I almost started crying,’’ said Rice, who is in his first year as a head coach.
“…I’m a true Carolina guy, and what better feeling can you get when the fans give you a standing ovation?”
Technically, there was a game played on Rice’s old home court, a 102-65 UNC shellacking that saw Tar Heels forward John Henson score 21 points, Kendall Marshall record 11 assists and the No. 5/6- ranked team pick up its record 26th straight victory at the Smith Center.
But with such a talent disparity, it felt more like a reunion, considering Rice brought with him two Monmouth assistant coaches who are also former Tar Heel players: Derrick Phelps and Brian Reese, starters on UNC’s 1993 national championship team.
“It was,’’ Rice said, “so great to come back.”
But different, too.
Reese said he got the jitters when he arrived at the arena for practice Saturday: “I felt like I wanted to walk on the floor and suit up again.”
Phelps, meanwhile, said he had to explain to the Monmouth players why there was so much Carolina blue: “That’s the way we do it here.”
Rice said the stadium felt bigger, more opposing as an opponent.
Perhaps he now understands what his foes used to feel during his playing days here. Added together, he, Phelps and Reese played 406 games in UNC uniforms, winning 334.
They were victories that taught them how they want their team to play, now.
“I knew King’s club would never quit,’’ UNC coach Roy Williams said. “They kept trying to do what they wanted to do, kept trying to do what they practice every day. He’s going to be an outstanding coach. He’s going through a tough time right now, but he’s going to be an outstanding coach, and that program’s going to be in great shape later on.”
It’s been an uphill battle so far. With a starting backcourt measuring in at 5-foot-8 and 5-10, a passel of newcomers and a schedule that has already included games at Villanova and Virginia Tech, the Hawks have managed only two wins. It’s been a tough road, but Rice said plenty of supporters in the Carolina family-- from Williams to Phil Ford to Larry Brown -- have called to offer support.
“Ya all right, King?” he says they ask.
And he says he will be -- because he’s hoping to build off the winning tradition it learned at Carolina.
“When you go out on the road, or when you go anywhere, people know Carolina and they remember when we played,’’ he said. “When we go recruiting, kids know because their parents tell them. I don’t think there is any other place that the former guys get treated the way we do.”
Indeed, during warm-ups before the game, there was a special moment when former assistant coach/head coach Bill Guthridge met with Rice, Phelps, Reese, and Eric Montross (UNC’s radio analyst and one of their former teammates) in front of the scorer’s table for a chat and a photo.
Then after the loss, Rice took a moment to embrace every current UNC player, even though they had outrebounded his team by 29, held it to 37.3 percent shooting and won by 37 points.
Rice was most proud of how his Hawks competed, being outscored by only six points in the second half to a team he thinks could win the national title. But he also respected the way his alma mater played, wanted to show it.
“I’m a Carolina guy that’s up at Monmouth that’s now becoming a Monmouth guy,’’ he said. “I’m proud of those kids. I want them to know I remember the days when I was in that [handshake] line. I respect everything about Carolina.”
BRIEFLY: Andrew Nicholas led Monmouth with 22 points … Harrison Barnes added 20 points for UNC, while senior Tyler Zeller recorded his fifth straight game with double-digit rebounds (11, plus eight points).
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.