CHAPEL HILL — In the end, after a long and agonizing wait, Roy Williams finally saw his basketball team play the way he wanted it to. And the way his mentor would’ve wanted it, too.
North Carolina's 94-71 throttling of Miami was the kind of game Williams was used to — the way he used to coach, freely and fearlessly. And his players played the kind of game he remembered from the days he sat at Dean Smith’s side.
The beleaguered Tar Heels had 32 assists on 40 made baskets. Smith would’ve been proud.
Williams had labored during the losing streak Carolina endured after Williams tied his old boss on the all-time wins list. But after he won his 879th game on Dec. 30, Williams said he wasn’t concentrating on 880.
“I desperately wanted No. 9,” he said.
Carolina is now 9-10 (2-6 in the ACC), and Williams seemed to relax a little for the first time in weeks. He said he never envisioned losing five straight games, but he admitted he felt joy in finally putting the Smith chase behind him and ending the losing streak.
“I’d have been just as happy if it had happened four or five games ago,” he said.
He wore a dapper gray suit with a pocket handkerchief and a pair of Nike Air Jordans. He stalked the sideline in front of players and former players and implored his team to play hard and to smile.
Carolina responded, running the floor the way Williams has taught from his earliest days as a coach at Kansas, a job he got because Smith gave KU officials the only advice they needed to hear.
“Hire Roy,” he told them. “He’s ready.”
Williams had never been through a season like this one, never coached a losing team, never coached a team that shot worse, handled pressure worse or drove him to question himself or his players. When he suggested a few weeks ago that it was the “least gifted” team he’d ever coached, it shocked people, especially the argyle set, the blue bloods who never forgave Williams for turning down UNC after Bill Guthridge retired.
There are those who still hold him in Smith’s shadow, something Williams feels and also embraces. Like Smith before him, he never forgets.
And he never believes he’s going to lose.
“I’m a guy in the stands who, the only game I saw for North Carolina my first year as a high school coach, was the eight points in 17 seconds,” Williams said, recalling the comeback win over Duke in 1974. “I’m a guy who never thinks the game’s over.”
He’s glad this excruciating wait is finally over. He’s happy for his team more than for himself, and he’s happy no one’s going to ask him about Smith for a while, at least not in relation to all-time wins.
Told the 32 assists on 40 baskets sounded like the game Smith coached, Williams didn’t hesitate.
“It should,” he said. “That’s North Carolina basketball. That’s the way I’ve always known it.”
In a sense, he’s been chasing his mentor his entire career. But he would never admit that.
“I’ll never be the coach that Coach Smith was,” he said before the season began.
When the game ended, and the long wait was finally over, he ran off Roy Williams Court inside the Dean E. Smith Center with his head down, glancing into the stands briefly then disappearing into the tunnel.
There would be no ceremony, no recognition of the wins list. Williams would have none of that.
In a sense, he’ll always be chasing Dean Smith.
But as of now, Roy Williams’ name is listed above his mentor’s.