GREENSBORO – Carolina fans filed into the Greensboro Coliseum all afternoon, some sheepishly choosing to sit in the upper decks away from eye contact, some boldly sitting in the front row wearing Jordan jerseys and argyle.
The truth is, they weren’t sure where to sit or what to wear or how to act. This was a day no UNC fan had ever endured.
The last-place Tar Heels arrived in Greensboro and did what they’ve done for years. Carolina’s fans bought the house and then the team stomped a football school.
The 78-56 win over Virginia Tech meant the Heels will play again Wednesday night against Syracuse, probably with a full house of fans who bought out all the Wake Forest tickets.
If UNC was indeed sheepish about playing from the bottom of the bracket for the first time, you’d never know it.
Carolina was as good as it’s been all season, and so were its fans, some of whom got in for almost nothing in a general-admission Tuesday.
There was a time in this tournament when schools let out for the first day of the event, a celebration of basketball that was almost impossible to attend. If you gave enough money to your alma mater, you were in for life. If you didn’t, you literally had to wait until somebody died to get tickets.
Times changed, and so did the league and its showcase event. More schools expanded the tournament, forcing a change in scheduling and bringing in sacrificial lambs for schools like Carolina to devour.
It seemed almost inevitable year after year.
The tournament was always in North Carolina. The league office has always been in North Carolina. And for what seems like forever, the state’s flagship university has avoided the fate of the tourists.
Calls came into the Coliseum offices on Monday as people asked about tournament tickets. They were told to just show up and wait outside for the losing fans to walk out with their tickets in the air.
In the old days, those tickets never made it out of the building as Carolina fans bought them all up. They were experts at cornering the market and buying the house for the weekend.
This year’s Carolina fans went through a lot, most of them having never experienced anything like it. But they continued to follow the team, continued to show up, sitting in the seats they’d always sat in, waiting for it to end, waiting for next year.
In 2002, when the Heels went 8-20, they avoided the last seed in the ACC. That was a darker season with parents involved and Coach Matt Doherty beginning to lose control of his players and his program.
This year wasn’t like that at all. The fans genuinely like this team, empathizing with the coaches and sympathizing with the many injured players. When grad transfer Christian Keeling went down with a foot injury and had to be helped off the floor, they shook their heads and wondered aloud “Why us?” When he returned midway through the second half, Keeling got a standing ovation.
They stood for almost the entire second half.
"It was like playing in the Smith Center tonight," Virginia Tech coach Mike Young said.
Carolina coach Roy Williams refused to let his team wallow in pity this season, and when the Heels arrived on Monday for a first Monday practice in the tournament, he refused to make excuses for finishing in last place.
“We played ourselves into this slot,” he said. “Nobody did anything mean to us. Hopefully we can go out and make some great memories and erase some of the things we’ve been through.”
The last-place Heels blew away Virginia Tech and will now play another game. And their fans will be waiting for the late-night matinee.
Some came dressed down a little, not entirely sure of what the Tuesday experience would be like. But not everybody.
Annette Wood came dressed in light blue, from head to toe. She drove in from Rural Hall in light-blue hair, blue and white face paint, blue and white overalls and blue lips.
“I wear this every time I go to a Carolina game,” she said. “Except when I go to Wake; I don’t want to get killed.”
She said she’s been behind this team all season, no matter what.
“It’s very hard to come in here in last place, but you know what? You can’t win every year,” she said. “But we don’t all get on that wagon when things are down. We still show up.”
Dressed to win.
And buying up every available ticket in the midst of one of the worst seasons in Carolina basketball history.
Like old times.