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UNC Basketball: True Grit

Not the movie, but the thing that can carry a team to the promised land at the end of the season.

NCAA Basketball: Louisville at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

We can all say we weren’t nervous. I’ll back you up if you back me up on this: when Louisville cut what had been a 17-point halftime lead to a measly five, when shots briefly stopped falling for the Heels and the Cardinals started to string together a few stops and convert those into points, we were never anxious. That chill that ran down my spine was completely unrelated, you understand, and that pit in my stomach was almost certainly from dinner. The dread that filled the shadows in the corners into my living room was just my standard garden-variety existential stuff, not the more acute Tar-Heel-related dread that had become an unwelcome roommate as the football season came to a close. There was never any doubt, you see, and I’ll tell anyone who will listen that I never wavered.

My personal trust issues aside, it’s clear that this Tar Heel team is walking the walk promised by my big talk. There are a lot of teams that would find themselves weak in the knees to watch a 17-point lead crumble like so many cookies in the back of the car on the way home. Not everyone believes in momentum, but anyone who subscribes to that particular worldview could feel it flowing against the home team in that moment. A missed layup for the Tar Heels, a Cardinal three, and suddenly the visitors had pecked away at that lead and seemed to be within striking distance.

Then, suddenly, the Heels were back up ten. Eleven. Thirteen. It seemed so easy, and maybe that’s the joy of being on the outside looking in. The Tar Heels, apparently unphased by the change in margin, simply stepped on the gas and pulled away. Jae’Lyn Withers came out of the half and casually dropped a crucial ten-piece on his former teammates, with eight of those coming after the Cardinals had briefly made it a two-score game. By the time RJ Davis splashed a dagger three from the corner with just over three minutes left to play, the lead had stretched back to 16. There was no panic, only business as usual, and that is an impressive thing to watch.

Disregarding conference records and recent history is not often a useful exercise. Louisville is currently tied for last in the ACC, and while last season was forgettable for both teams, the Cardinals were forgettable in a much more memorable way in terms of the history books. Still, a struggling team had somehow clawed most of the way back from a 17-point hole to bring the game within five points with plenty of time to turn the tables further. A paper tiger would fold here; a lesser team would find themselves in an unexpected brawl to the end of the game. This Tar Heel team feels like neither of those things. Toughness is hard to teach, but this team has it in spades. That grit will serve them well down the stretch of the season.

We can all continue to pretend that we don’t get nervous anymore. What a great day to be a Tar Heel.