I want to be completely clear about this: this is not political. This is not a red issue or a blue issue. This is about there being a better way to live. I am absolutely convinced that the United States of America is the best country in the world, but somehow, this doesn’t happen in other countries. And sometimes being the best means figuring out where you have to improve, and who is doing it better, and how you can implement some of their ideas.
I am not qualified to tell you about politics or policy or rights. Someone else has to figure out those things. But I am qualified to tell you that they better get on with it, because on Monday everyone in Chapel Hill lived it and it isn’t acceptable.
This afternoon, Jones Angell and I were recording Tuesday’s edition of the Carolina Insider podcast. Around 1 p.m., we heard sirens. Our studio is adjacent to the Dean Smith Center. Soon, the text arrived. This is what it said:
“Alert Carolina! Armed, dangerous person on or near campus. Go inside now, avoid windows.”
You live in America in 2023, so you know what this means. Do all of us leave the hotel when the fire alarm goes off? Of course not. Was this really—truly—happening? The chances seemed low. Not at Carolina. This happens somewhere else. We watch it on the news, not out our window.
But then: sirens and ambulances and fire trucks. The building we are in is basically made of windows. We went upstairs.
It didn’t truly hit home until Jones said, “I’m glad they keep this building locked.” And then I realized something: I was glad, too.
I hope none of you ever have to experience the temporary flutter in your stomach when the exterior door to your building slams and there is a brief second when you wonder for just a second if it is someone with a gun.
This isn’t to make you feel sorry for any of us in Carolina athletics. So many people had it so much worse than us today. I have a friend whose college freshman daughter was locked down in the building next to where the shooting took place. They will never, ever forget this day. But they have to. All of us do, or we wouldn’t leave the house tomorrow.
We were blocking it out even while the situation was happening. There were a few brief minutes this afternoon when several of us discussed the entrance video for Carolina Basketball this year. We threw out ideas. Talked about what would excite the crowd.
We had to. The other options were watching the news, or imagining what it was like in those buildings just across campus, or texting people in the football building who were huddled in the equipment room.
There comes a point where you just can’t process it anymore. So you think about the Carolina Basketball entrance video for a few minutes. But then you look out the window and there are over a dozen police officers massing outside the Smith Center—directly outside the place where all of us have so many fantastic memories and have enjoyed so many great nights with so many people we love—putting on tactical vests and carrying very serious looking weapons. I’m locked in the building wondering if we should do a podcast and they’re putting on armored gear preparing to run into an unknown situation. Follow them on Twitter.
You know what truthfully would excite the crowd way more than any video we could produce? Being able to gather without wondering if they will be secure. My kids texted me today to find out if I was safe. My kidstexted me about my safety. Do you understand how broken that is?
So many times I have watched these incidents on television and thought, “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be one of the people living through this.” Looking out that window, it finally hit me: today, I am one of those people. And so many people on so many of these similar days have had it so, so much worse than me. I went home. So many haven’t had that luxury. I texted my wife that traffic was bad. What a problem to have.
This incident wasn’t even one of the “bad ones.” How sick is that? This is one that the rest of the world will forget, because there was “only” one fatality. But there were thousands of college students who barricaded themselves in their dorms, and thousands of Chapel Hill public school kids who will never forget this day, and thousands of parents who weren’t sure if their kids were safe. That’s true every time this happens. I’ve just never thought about it that way, because I’ve never had to think about it that way, and haven’t wanted to think about it that way.
We know someone who went to their first day of high school in Chapel Hill schools—one of the best school systems in the free world—today. She saw armed guards with guns drawn. I vividly remember being very nervous the night before the first day of high school about who I might eat lunch with the next day.
She saw guns.
This isn’t progress. It’s the opposite of progress.
Someone in Chapel Hill is trying to sleep tonight who sent their child to their first day of kindergarten today. Their precious little five-year old who is nervous about learning to read and sleeps with a gang of stuffed animals and wants to be a princess when they grow up …and then couldn’t go home at dismissal because the adults weren’t sure it was safe. That’s us. We are the adults. We’re the ones failing.
Somewhere a Chapel Hill kindergartner—right here in Chapel Hill, the best place in the entire world—looked forward to going to “big kid school” all summer and lined up their clothes on Sunday night and walked off this morning with a backpack bigger than they are and now after one day of school they think it’s normal to lock themselves in the classroom and stay away from windows.
That isn’t good enough.
It’s true that today wasn’t as bad as it could have been. But it was worse—so much worse, for so many people—than it should have been.
Drink with the dreamers and the cheaters and the longers
And the dealers deal aces from a loaded stack of cards”
The first time I ever talked to Eric Church, we spent more time talking about the 1987 Carolina-Syracuse basketball game than anything we were actually supposed to be discussing.
If you’re of a certain generation—and both of us are—you know that game. One of the most fun teams in Tar Heel basketball history, with Kenny Smith running the point and J.R. Reid dominating the interior and Dean Smith orchestrating everything on the sideline at the peak of his powers. Carolina went 14-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference that year, and after every single one of those games I pretended to be Kenny The Jet in my driveway.
The loss to Jim Boeheim’s Orangemen in the East Regional final still hurts today, and I am still irrationally bitter at Rony Seikaly.
Church felt the same way, as I discovered one day when we spent nearly an hour reliving great moments from that team and other Tar Heel squads. We discovered we have quite a bit in common—for example, we are both regular attendees at Eric Church shows—and have stayed in constant contact, including some late-night hour-long phone calls dissecting the latest Carolina basketball win (or loss).
The fact that he’s a winner of the Entertainer of the Year award doesn’t seem to matter when he starts discussing the Tar Heels. He still follows Carolina as closely as any of your most rabid Tar Heel fan friends, a fact that was cemented when he made the well-documented decision to postpone a concert to attend last year’s Final Four game against Duke with his family.
Much less reported upon was the fact that when Church attended ESPN’s College GameDay as the celebrity guest picker this season, he left Chapel Hill before the actual game was played. The reason was exactly the same as when he attended the game in New Orleans: he wanted to have an experience with his family. His son was playing in a basketball tournament back in Nashville, so the singer flew to Chapel Hill to appear on the show, then flew right back home to catch his son’s game, missing the Carolina-Duke game.
In other words, he’s the kind of Tar Heel fan you’d want to hang out with—the kind who prioritizes almost nothing over a big Carolina game…except his kid’s AAU basketball game.
Through a relationship that has built over the last decade, I’ve been fortunate to attend several of his shows. I admire the music—and, as I’ve told him, especially the writing of that music, because he’s a prolific writer of not just his own hits but those of others—but also appreciate the environment he’s created at his concerts.
It’s not unusual to attend a Carolina game at which the person in the row behind you spends most of the game complaining about what didn’t happen—a shot that wasn’t made, a player who isn’t performing well, a coach who doesn’t call a timeout.
That never happens at a Church show. I’ve never heard anyone listen to him rip through “Knives of New Orleans” and then immediately say, “Well, it was better in Phoenix in 2017.” In the last decade of Church shows, I’ve met a man named Buckshot in Pittsburgh who was driving back overnight to West Virginia to work in a coal mine the next day but couldn’t miss singing every word live with Church that night. In Chicago, I met a couple from Wisconsin who nearly began sobbing when I handed them one of the trademark cups used in Church’s backstage vibe room.
The atmosphere is the same among his team and crew, all of whom are abundantly generous with their time and patient with newcomers. At rehearsal earlier this week, Church’s longtime manager John Peets asked if he could get me anything while he was running a different errand. Church consigliere Marshall Alexander stopped eating dinner to catch up. This is akin to Roy Williams pausing during an exhibition game to inquire if you’d like a cold Coca-Cola or Mack Brown halting a scrimmage to inquire about your kids. I promise you that anyone on Church’s crew has dozens of better things to do than talk to me. But unfailingly, they do it. It’s not that they’re better people than the ones from my daily life, because Carolina has some gems. But being around them makes me better.
“Everybody’s got their arms around
Everybody else’s shoulders
Guarding against the world outside
Like an army of Friday night soldiers”
I need that right now. I’ve always thought it would be fun to do some “postgame columns” after concerts, trying to bring some of that same behind the scenes access to Church fans that happens for Tar Heel fans after games. They all know the setlist. But whether they attended the show or followed it online, there are so many details that they miss.
This summer, I’m going to try to catalog those specifics. For roughly 25 dates of the upcoming Outsiders Revival tour, I’ll be on site with the tour, then writing a post-concert story that will be used in a variety of ways by Church’s team, including posting to his much-loved Church Choir web portal for his fan club. Hopefully, every story will be different, because every show is completely different, even when the core of songs remains the same. And based on what I saw in rehearsal, even that core of songs might occasionally look and sound a little different. As longtime fans know, Church is never afraid to make a change.
His songs are meaningful to so many people for so many different reasons. This summer is about the chance to find out why, and hopefully the post-concert columns (ideally, very similar to this one) help tell those stories, whether it’s what “Give Me Back My Hometown” means to a fan seeing it live for the first (or 20th) time or how “Russian Roulette” went from a page in his notebook to the stage.
Nothing is changing at the day job. We’ll still have Carolina Insider podcasts for you throughout the summer, and occasional GoHeels stories when the circumstances warrant. But on the weekends, I’ll be in Milwaukee or Toronto or Austin finding new stories.
This has been a unique athletics year. College sports is changing, and in addition to the obvious differences, this year I lost faith in people I believed in and trusted. By the spring, I could feel myself being more cynical than I want to be. When I started this job 20 years ago, it was startling to me how many sportswriters were bitter, jaded individuals. They had fantastic jobs—they get paid to go to games! But it seemed to be a contest to see who could be more sarcastic in the press box.
I never wanted to have that approach. But in the last few months, I’ve felt closer to that outlook than felt comfortable to me. Going on tour with Church is a way to reboot that mindset. It’s not lost on me that both of my jobs are absurdly ridiculous. I get to walk into the Smith Center any time I want and watch the Tar Heels from some of the best seats in the arena. Eight-year-old Adam would not believe it.
And now I get an all access pass to a tour I’d be attending anyway, with the opportunity to interact with the musicians and the personnel and the fans who make that tour happen. Thirty-year-old Adam would not believe it.
This is the first of Church’s recent tours that doesn’t run through basketball season, making it perfect timing. And for a variety of reasons, right now feels like a time that it would be derelict to neglect this type of opportunity. This doesn’t feel like the right moment to pass up a potential once in a lifetime chance. So even if it means a hectic schedule during the usual slower time at work, or more travel at a time that is supposed to be for relaxing, this is the right chance to take. My wife and I recently checked the calendar and realized the upcoming week is the last time we’ll be at home for a full week until after Labor Day. It was a little daunting. After all, I’m not even sure that I know how to write about a concert instead of a game, and now I’ve committed to doing it two dozen times in in 21 different cities?
But then I told Eric Montross about the summer plan. “That,” he said, “sounds awesome.” That was enough endorsement to know it is the right thing to do.
This summer is about a new experience, in new places, with new people. It’s about giving some of the most loyal fans in the music business a different perspective on an artist they’ve supported since he was playing tiny bars instead of giant stadiums. It’s also about getting back to the mindset that will help me be better at my “real” job once September arrives, about making the Outsiders Revival tour a bit of a personal revival.
And, yes, it’s about seeing some very warm summer nights through a different perspective—through Eric Church’s Ray-Bans.
One of the best interactions any of us who cover Carolina can have is when a Tar Heel fan stops us and says something we did–an interview, a book, a story–was meaningful to them. Let’s be very clear: the main connection is with the Tar Heels. But it’s special when something I wrote or said connected with anyone, especially when it prompts them to share it with their family or friends or game-watching buddies.
I used to record Woody and Mick broadcasts on the Tar Heel Sports Network on blank tapes and save them to listen to later. One of my favorite possessions is a cassette of the 1993 championship game with the THSN call, signed by both broadcasters. I can watch the game on YouTube any time I want, of course. But there’s just something about having it in that format, in their words–even if I don’t exactly have an easy way to play it these days.
So that’s what prompted this idea. New for 2023, you can order handwritten excerpts from any GoHeels column I’ve ever done (they go back 20 years) or from any of the Tar Heel-related books I’ve done. If there’s a passage that connected with you or made you think of someone else, it’s hopefully a great way to share it with them in a slightly more artistic and personal way than just printing it off the internet. Pair it with a photo of you at a game or in Chapel Hill or wherever is meaningful to you, and boom, you’ve got a great gift. And needless to say, I’ll inscribe the excerpt with almost anything you request (don’t bother asking for, “Coach K is my hero” or something equally offensive).
The best place to find a complete list of GoHeels columns is here. As always, feel free to reach out with questions/comments about this project. And as a reminder, the order link is here.
This job is ridiculous. My work year consisted of watching two of the most memorable Carolina basketball games in program history, having in-depth conversations with a wide range of Carolina players and coaches, and generally going to “work” with people I like and respect every single day.
So making a list of “favorites” from this past calendar year feels a little like stealing. Even the bad days (as you’ll see below) were only bad because we all get so invested in the Tar Heels–and more importantly, in the people who wear the Tar Heel uniforms.
But some days stand out more than others. This is a list of some of my favorites from this past year. Hopefully some of your favorites are on here, too.
Jan. 29: A Good Day–The rush of the last month of the season had kind of made me forget how awesome this day–Roy Williams Day–was in Chapel Hill. It had a little bit of everything, including, of course, a rout of NC State.
Feb. 4: Mother of the Family–We lost too many Tar Heels in 2022, including Lennie Rosenbluth and Ademola Okulaja. I think they’d be OK, though, with spotlighting Linda Woods here, because she was an integral part of solidifying the Carolina family. Mrs. Woods was someone who never wanted to talk about herself, and it was nice to finally get to brag on her a little.
Feb. 18: Manek Finds Second Home–We haven’t had many Tar Heels like Brady Manek. Getting to know Manek and his family over the course of the 2021-22 season was one of the highlights of that campaign. And he never changed a bit, even as he became a Tar Heel fan favorite.
March 6: The Unseen–Recently going back and watching this game for a special episode of the Carolina Insider was a nice reminder of how incredibly fun the Carolina-Duke game in Durham was. Absolutely no one thought Carolina had any chance. At the time, we thought it was the ultimate one-up in the game’s best rivalry. Little did we know things could get even better.
April 2: Apologies–A big part of what the Carolina-Duke game in New Orleans felt like was the sheer stress of it. It was a whole week of nothing but thinking about this game, and it all led to the longest day in world history, during which I mostly just sat alone in my hotel room and paced and worried. It was all completely worth it.
April 3: The Tears–Impossible to look back at 2022 without including this one. Carolina’s win over Duke in New Orleans in Mike Krzyzewski’s last game is a victory that has somehow only grown in the mythology of Tar Heel basketball every day since April 3. I’ve never, ever seen emotions like this at a basketball game.
Oct. 28: Connecting The Dots–Only at Carolina could a simple basketball exhibition game be this special. It helps that the 1997 and 1998 basketball teams were some of the most important squads of my formative Tar Heel fandom. Having them all back together at the Smith Center was a way to think back to some of my favorite UNC memories–and some of theirs, too.
Dec. 5: The Bad Times–I was sitting in our car with my wife in a jam-packed stadium parking lot after the women’s soccer national championship game when I said to her, “I think I’m going to have to write something.” Not because of job obligations. But because we’d just watched the Tar Heels lose a heartbreaker, and I needed some therapy. About a half-hour earlier, I had actively been scoping out routes down to the field to do some celebratory postgame interviews. Then everything fell apart, helped largely by a very questionable no-call on the game-tying goal. This story, which it was gratifying to see so many people connect with, was the result of trying to make sense of all of it.
If there had been an internet in 1982, the GoHeels.com Rapid Reactions might have looked like this…
1. What an incredible finish to Carolina’s first national championship since the undefeated 1957 team.
2. You know he doesn’t want it to be about him, but how relieved are you to never have to hear about how Dean Smith can’t win the big one? Point guard Jimmy Black said all week the Tar Heels wanted to win it for Smith, and the senior was emotional after the game after accomplishing his goal. Quite a redemption moment for Carolina after losing the 1981 championship game and then returning to win it in 1982. We’re almost certain to never see a redemption like that again.
3. The shot by Mike Jordan with 17 seconds remaining instantly becomes one of the biggest in Carolina history. Jordan showed plenty of poise and aggressiveness and could be a nice complement to headliner Sam Perkins on next year’s team.
4. Jordan made the final shot, but it was junior James Worthy who claimed Most Outstanding Player honors. Worthy was sensational in the Gastonia vs. Gastonia matchup with Sleepy Floyd (who was not heavily recruited by most ACC schools) and also threw down a ferocious one-handed dunk that bounced off Floyd’s head as it zipped through the basket. Worthy set a career high with 28 points in the game.
5. Key stretch late in the second half when Carolina held the ball for nearly two full minutes with a one-point lead. Jordan capped the possession with an incredible layup high off the glass over Patrick Ewing, who had four fouls.
6. Carolina didn’t shy away after Georgetown’s Patrick Ewing tried to intimidate with five early goaltends. The Tar Heels continued to pound away in the paint rather than settling for uncharacteristic long-distance 17- or 18-footers.
7. Interesting use of the bench by Dean Smith in the first half. The ’82 Tar Heels aren’t deep, but Smith got some minutes from Christ Brust, Jim Braddock and Buzz Peterson early in order to be able to push his starters in the second half.
8. Jordan’s big jumper will deservedly get most of the attention, but he had a couple other very impressive second half baskets: a follow basket in transition off a Black miss that gave Carolina a three-point lead, and an incredible drive and layup high off the glass later in the period. Jordan also had a key offensive rebound off a Worthy missed free throw that led to a beautiful Matt Doherty assist back to Worthy for a dunk, and then kept another Worthy miss alive that turned into two Black free throws.
9. Big momentum shift midway through the second half, as Peterson committed a turnover with Carolina down four and Floyd had a run-out that would’ve given Georgetown a six-point lead. But Floyd missed, and Perkins knocked in a baseline jumper to cut the lead back to two. Peterson made up for that miscue by picking up a loose ball a couple minutes later that led to Worthy’s highlight dunk.
10. Hope you were one of the many Tar Heels who turned down the sound and got to hear Woody Durham call Smith’s first national championship. If Twitter had been invented yet, it would have been on fire with Billy Packer commentary, including informing us that Jordan “looked shaky” right before his drive and score against Ewing.
11. Underrated storylines: Black’s seven assists, Carolina’s 28-20 rebounding advantage (including a team-high nine for Jordan), Carolina’s clock management in the final five minutes, and–fortunately–the Tar Heels’ hiccups at the free throw line in the second half (the Heels shot 13-for-22 in the game).
12. Who knows where the future will take us, but it’s hard not to imagine that we didn’t just watch one of the best NCAA championship games in history. Tight all the way, with great performances on both sides and great coaches on both sidelines, that’s a game they’ll probably still be talking about 40 years from now when they’re flying around in their hovercars.
Although Jones Angell and I would like to think otherwise, people don’t listen to the Carolina Insider podcast for our incredible insight. We’re well aware that our guests are the ones who drive the downloads. When they have something interesting to say or a unique viewpoint, that’s what Carolina fans want to hear.
In a time when Tar Heels everywhere have more free time than they otherwise might, we thought it might be fun to revisit some of our listeners’ favorite interviews. Last night on Twitter we asked for suggestions, and what follows is a complete list of all the interviews, along with the dates they aired, that were mentioned.
Eric Church (1/6/17): Newer listeners might be surprised that we had music superstar Eric Church on the podcast in the very early months of the show. He talks a little music, but what definitely comes through in the interview is his passionate love for the Tar Heels.
Freddie Kiger (2/3/17 and 11/26/19): Freddie has had a courtside seat for some of the biggest moments in Carolina basketball in the last nearly half-century. He also happens to be one of the best storytellers we’ve ever had on the podcast.
Mick Mixon (4/11/18): Speaking of great storytellers, Mick is also one of the best. His story about Jerry Richardson’s Chap-Stick is a classic. It’s probably about time for a part two with Mick.
Dick Baddour (4/24/18 and 8/23/19): Very similar to the Doherty episodes in the way Mr. Baddour was able to provide the facts on some of the most-rumored topics of his administration. You might be surprised at just how close Frank Beamer came to being the head football coach at North Carolina.
Matt Doherty part 1 and part 2 (9/6/18 and 9/7/18): This was easily the most-mentioned interview by listeners. Coach Doherty was extremely gracious with his time and was very open about everything we asked him. Whether you were a big Tar Heel fan during the Doherty era or have only heard about it second-hand, this is a great way to get the facts on what happened, what Coach Doherty might have done differently, and how his viewpoints on that time period have changed.
Jason Brown (11/9/18): The former Carolina and NFL offensive lineman has an incredible story, and all we had to do was turn on the recorder and let him tell it. Brown was very open about his faith, and whether you share that viewpoint or not, it’s hard not to respect his conviction and the way he’s put it into action in his life.
James Spurling (8/14/19): The best interviews are when the subjects have a passion for a topic and it comes through in their words. Mr. Spurling’s passion just so happens to be the University of North Carolina and especially Tar Heel athletics, so much so that it brought him to tears during our conversation.
Howard Lee (1/7/20): Not sure why it took us nearly four years to get Mr. Lee on the podcast. His interview might be the closest we’ve done to being a legitimate part of the history of the state of North Carolina, and it’s also a good reminder of how to handle contentious times.
Pod history, 100th pod (1/22/18) and the 200th pod (5/9/19): Much of the pod history can be found in these two episodes, plus an appearance by Big Grits himself on the 100th episode and an incredible Grammy-worthy song on the 200th edition.
In his short two-game return stint as Carolina’s head football coach, Mack Brown has already achieved numerous admirable goals.
He’s reignited interest in Carolina football. His Tar Heels are surging on the recruiting trail. He’s won two games and has the program 2-0 against power five competition for the first time since 1997.
But he’s also done something even more incredible: he’s persuaded a college student to spend a Friday night with her parents.
Carolina travels to Wake Forest tomorrow night for a nonconference (yes, it’s a scheduled nonconference home-and-home, since the two teams meet infrequently in league play) matchup against the Demon Deacons. Interest is high. Carolina had returned tickets from its allotment to Wake last week; they had to call the Deacs this week and ask if they could have them back because interest in Chapel Hill was so high.
Our oldest daughter is a freshman at Carolina this year. Her first game in the student section was Saturday night against Miami. She’s a UNC football veteran and has been attending games virtually her entire life, but the atmosphere is a little different in the student section.
“It’s awesome,” she reported during the game against the Hurricanes. “So hot, but it’s awesome.”
So it’s impressive that Brown was able to persuade Sam Howell to come to Carolina, and to attract a terrific coaching staff, and rally the University community around lighting the Bell Tower. But right now, in our house, we’re more thankful that he created an environment for her first Carolina football game as a student that our daughter will always remember. The electricity in Kenan on Saturday night was something you don’t forget, and something you talk about five or ten or twenty years from now. Who you went with, what happened in the stands, how loudly you shouted the words to Hark the Sound after the game. (She’s not the only one—fresh off the Miami experience, student tickets for the Appalachian State game were claimed this morning in less than half an hour)
We are trying very hard not to be the parents that hang around their college freshman all the time. But we miss her in a way that you’ll understand one day when your kid goes off to college and after you move her in on a Thursday, you say, “See you this weekend, maybe?” and she responds, “How about next week?”
As we were already aware, she is strong and independent and eager to meet new people. From a parent’s perspective, we are alternately proud and miserable.
All of that led to this entirely unexpected text conversation earlier this week.
Me: “Do you want to see if any of your friends would want to go to the Wake game on Friday night at 6?”
Her: “Yes, I definitely want to talk to them, because I think they will want to go.”
Her (a couple hours later): “My suitemates are unsure and there are some other people going to a concert, so I would probably say it will just be me.”
Me (slightly stunned): “Do you want to go with us or would you rather not? If you want to go to the concert that’s fine.”
Her: “I would rather go to the game with y’all.”
Me: (Head exploding emoji)
It should be acknowledged that she will be mortified by this story, so she is not named here to try and preserve some level of anonymity. You understand, of course. If word gets out that she is hanging out with her parents and youngest brother on a Friday night, her social standing might not recover.
We used to take these games for granted. Of course we’d go to the game and of course we’d go together. But a month into college life, these occasions seem a little more precious. And we know that although we are obviously incredibly cool, we’re not so cool that she would turn down a Friday night in Chapel Hill with her friends unless Mack Brown had made football fun again.
So maybe Brown will deliver us all a victory and a 3-0 record on Friday night. Maybe he won’t. But he’s made Carolina football something no one wants to miss, even a college student with numerous other social options. So Friday night we’ll watch Chazz and Dazz and Sam, and we’ll get to spend a few hours with our little girl who grew up too fast, and it’s hard to imagine a better Friday night.
What a completely unpredictable, incredibly fun game in Durham. How in the world did Carolina just do that? It was a decisive 88-72 victory in which Carolina never trailed.
Sometimes, it helps to have seniors. Luke Maye had a mammoth 30 points and 15 rebounds, and Cameron Johnson had a “quiet” 26 points and seven rebounds. Four of Maye’s five career 30-point games have now come against other Triangle schools.
Say that again: Maye just put up 30 against top-ranked Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium. There will be time to appreciate his incredible career in a few months, but for now: wow. Admittedly, Zion Williamson leaving the game 34 seconds in changed the matchups, but Maye mostly did whatever he wanted in his 38 minutes.
And what about Johnson, who came to Chapel Hill largely as a three-point shooter and just scored 26 points against Duke without making a three.
But Duke had two scorers in Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett who matched Maye and Johnson almost shot for shot. The difference in the game was that Carolina had more than just that duo. Garrison Brooks made six of his seven shots and scored 14 points, Seventh Woods added five big points, and Coby White scored nine in an off performance.
The game was decided under the basket. The Tar Heels had the edge on points in the paint by a whopping 62-28 margin, and Carolina also won the rebounding battle, 46-41.
Both these teams have generated a considerable amount of offense on second chances. Although Duke had more offensive rebounds than the Tar Heels (13-10), there were many more offensive rebound opportunities for the Devils, as they missed 47 shots compared to just 37 misses for the visitors. Carolina was also more efficient with their offensive boards, as they had a 14-10 second chance points edge.
It didn’t feel like this watching the game—possibly because every Tar Heel turnover felt like a crisis—but Duke actually had 20 turnovers to Carolina’s 15. And the Heels turned those 20 miscues into 19 points. Reddish and Barrett had nine of Duke’s 20 turnovers, while Maye and Johnson combined for two.
All those times Roy Williams talks about the importance of getting the ball inside, all those times he preaches about the value of tough post play…it’s because of nights like this. The Tar Heels shot a miserable 2-for-20 from the three-point line, but somehow won the game. Johnson, Maye and Brooks combined to shoot a blistering 60 percent on two-point shots (30 for 50).
The Tar Heel freshmen won’t put this one in a time capsule. White had six turnovers and never got on track offensively, and Nassir Little wasn’t effective in his 11 minutes, getting just one rebound and committing three turnovers.
But even without Leaky Black and Sterling Manley, Carolina somehow had enough to overcome an off night from both freshmen and the team-wide bad perimeter shooting. A big reason for that was the willingness of everyone who played to put themselves in harm’s way. Kenny Williams didn’t score until the game’s closing seconds but drew three charges, Seventh Woods drew a charge, and Brandon Robinson nearly lost a tooth for his trouble.
Speaking of Woods, what a great night for the junior. In a game where White wasn’t himself, the junior reserve turned a seven-point lead into a 13-point advantage in his first stretch, took the Heels from up seven to up 10 at the end of the first half, and added another two points to the lead in a key second half stretch.
Roy Williams now has eight wins over a number-one ranked team, the most in college basketball history. The Tar Heels as a program now have 14 wins over the #1 ranked squad, also the most in the country.
Don’t forget that the next two games are against Florida State and Syracuse, the two teams that just so happen to be directly behind the three-way tie at the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Carolina needs big, rowdy crowds at the Smith Center for the next two games as they continue to battle for ACC and NCAA tournament seedings.
Maybe you’ll see this on national television, maybe you won’t: Carolina has now won three of the last four games against Duke.
Coby White was sensational in Carolina’s road win at Georgia Tech. The freshman shot 7-for-13 and handed out eight assists, which means he either scored or assisted on over half of the Tar Heels’ 29 field goals. White also had just two turnovers. He continues to be able to get his shot almost any time he wants it, and he’s starting to do a better job of identifying when he wants it. Against an offensively challenged team like the Yellow Jackets, White’s offense plus Cameron Johnson’s hot shooting (8-for-10 from the field for 22 points) was far too much to overcome.
It’s fortunate for the Tar Heels that Georgia Tech couldn’t supplement their paint scoring with some three-point accuracy. The Jackets punished Carolina in the lane in the first half (holding a 16-8 edge in points in the paint) but shot just 1-for-10 from the three-point line. Tech finished just 2-for-16 from the three-point line.
The Jackets haven’t been shooting the ball well from the perimeter all year, so give the UNC defense credit for shutting off their frequent source of offense—the free throw line. Tech had been the second-best team in the league at getting to the line in conference games, and the Tar Heels allowed them a very manageable 13 free throws. That’s occasionally been an area where Carolina has struggled this year, so this category was a noteworthy improvement.
Nassir Little didn’t score a ton, but he was very aggressive on the glass and collected four rebounds in the first half, a couple of which came in heavy traffic. For Carolina to play smaller, Little has to rebound, and he did a solid job on Tuesday. He finished with seven rebounds, played the fourth-most minutes on the team, and scored nine points. If that’s an off night from the freshman, Carolina will take it.
Nice to see Roy Williams using his use it or lose it timeout when Carolina had an inbounds play under the basket with 1.0 seconds remaining in the first half. It very nearly worked, as Garrison Brooks couldn’t quite finish a tomahawk dunk on a lob pass.
Cameron Johnson took some heat from Kenny Williams last year for a dunk that Williams called an “exaggerated layup,” referring to Johnson’s lack of explosiveness. After offseason hip surgery, what a change to watch Johnson take flight and throw down a second half dunk over the Jackets’ 6-foot-9 James Banks. Johnson said during the fall that he felt physically able to make plays he couldn’t make before, and it showed on Tuesday.
As always in Atlanta, there was a great turnout of Carolina blue in the McCamish Pavilion stands. In addition, there was a sizable contingent of former players on hand. George Lynch, the head coach at Clark Atlanta University, was behind the Carolina bench, along with his assistant coach, 2005 national champion Melvin Scott. 1993 national champion Kevin Salvadori was there, as was 2017 champ Kanler Coker. It’s always fun to watch different generations of Tar Heels connect. Lynch and his children lingered after the game because his daughter is a big fan of Cam Johnson and wanted to meet him. You’ll hear more from Lynch next week on the Carolina Insider podcast in a one-of-a-kind interview in which he and Eric Montross reminisced about the 1993 team, Dean Smith and more.
Brandon Robinson continues to be a valuable asset. Playing in front of plenty of friends and family in his home state, plus his high school coach, Robinson finished with seven points and made several heady plays off the bench (there’s much more on Robinson’s big night–and how it washed away the memories of a dismal trip to Georgia his freshman season–in the postgame column here).
If you need something to be concerned about, Georgia Tech had some success against the Tar Heels in the paint. Carolina won the rebounding battle, but narrowly, at 39-34. The Jackets had an edge on second chance points (8-1), but the Tar Heels actually had a better offensive rebounding percentage because Tech missed so many shots, and therefore there were so many more offensive rebound chances for Josh Pastner’s team. Tech still had 36 points in the paint and went through a stretch in the first half when they were having good success piercing the Tar Heel defense by throwing the ball straight into the middle. Carolina will need to be stronger against that type of play against the league’s better teams.
And, of course, there are the turnovers. Carolina committed 15 of them, and over half were from the senior combination of Luke Maye (5) and Kenny Williams (3). Again, it just looks like turnovers are going to be a fact of life with this team. If shooting 13-for-27 from the three-point line is also a fact of life, that’s not a terrible tradeoff. There’s no guarantee the Heels can sustain that level of shooting. The 29 three-pointers made in the last two games are the most in UNC history in consecutive games.
The 2018-19 season now becomes just the fourth time in the Roy Williams era—and the fourth time in the last 25 years—that the Tar Heels have posted two ACC road wins of at least 20 points in the same season. That’s certainly partially due to the expanded league (it was much tougher to do it when you only played seven or eight road games and the depth was a little more consistent) but it’s also testament to this team’s ability to put points up quickly. Just in the last two games, runs against Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech have been devastating.
About those runs, from Johnson in the postgame: “The offense is clicking because we have a lot of guys who can score from anywhere…We can find scoring from so many different areas and that’s hard to guard because you can’t key in on any one guy. We did a good job scoring in transition in the second half.”
The immediate question in the aftermath of the game will be the health of Leaky Black, who went down with an ankle injury in the second half. Roy Williams referred to it as a sprained ankle in the postgame. Black had already been playing through some knee pain this year, and his availability for Saturday’s key road game at Louisville will be determined later this week.
As for that game at Louisville–it’s likely to dictate how you feel about the first half of this ACC season. Win, and the Tar Heels look like league contenders. Suffer another outcome like the one from the first meeting between the two teams, and there will be questions about whether Carolina simply took advantage of a softer league slate in January.
Josh Pastner is an excellent defender. The Tech coach was very active on the sideline when Carolina shot at the basket in front of the Jacket bench in the first half.
We were walking through a back hallway of Quicken Loans Arena on a February Friday night around 7 p.m. when a friend nudged us. “That’s the three-year-old,” he said, and then introduced us to Boone Church.
Boone looks too big to be a three-year-old, which is exactly right. He’s not a three-year-old, he’s the three-year-old—as in, the inspiration for the song by his dad, Eric Church, entitled Three Year-Old.
Boone has the type of personality that makes you pretty sure he’s going to be the inspiration for quite a few more songs over the course of his life. He’s five now, and is primarily interested in his father’s career because it means he gets to shoot baskets at a lot of really cool arenas. Less than three hours before Friday night’s first song, he was shooting hoops in the Cleveland Cavaliers practice gym.
“Who do you like better?” a security guard asked him, “LeBron or Kyrie?”
Boone was not impressed. “I don’t really like the Cavs,” he said. “I like Minnesota.”
His dad did a doubletake. His firstborn had not previously mentioned an affinity for the Timberwolves, but the tour had recently passed through the Target Center, so anything was possible.
It was like this every night on the Holdin’ My Own Tour. Backstage, there was a tightknit family of musicians and crew. Every night, they put on what was the biggest tour in America, and then they tore it all down and hauled it off to another city. On that particular day in Cleveland, they arrived from Indianapolis at 4 a.m. After the longest show of the tour so far—more tickets were sold at Quicken Loans Arena than any stop so far on the tour, so Eric felt inspired to give them the most songs yet on the tour, putting 36 songs on his set list and then adding a couple more on the end just to make sure everyone got their money’s worth; he took the stage just after 8:15 p.m. and played until midnight, with a 20-minute intermission–they packed up and headed for Auburn Hills, Michigan.
During the audible portion of the second act—Church is touring without an opening act, instead choosing to play for three hours every night, and on this night closer to four—the Granite Falls, N.C. native chuckled when he looked at the set list and saw what was supposed to come next.
“Before today, I had never heard this song,” he told the crowd. “But my manager is a Cleveland native, and he was singing it. And I told him I didn’t know this song, but I’d like to know it.”
So, as the unimaginably talented are known to do, Church simply learned “My Town,” a beloved Cleveland anthem by the Michael Stanley Band, in an afternoon. And there he was playing it in front of 20,000 people.
“My band and I,” he told the crowd, “have played this song a total of zero times together. Zero.”
And that’s what keeps them coming back. Because you never know when you might hear something for the first time, or when Church might decide to play “Standing Their Ground” as a tribute to first responders. The faithful were equally happy to hear “Two Pink Lines,” Church’s first single and one he hasn’t played on recent tours. It’s back on the set list now, because, well, there are three dozen other songs also on the set list. The singer makes certain every show is different.
It would be easier to simply replicate the same show every night, and it would still rock, and everyone would still go home happy. But it wouldn’t be Church, and that’s why he purposefully left a spot in his set list to rotate in a new group of songs every night. If someone is going to the show in Cleveland tonight and Auburn Hills tomorrow—and he inspires the type of fanaticism that means someone certainly did—he wants them to have two unique experiences.
In April, we went to the show in Pittsburgh on a Friday and Cincinnati on a Saturday. We saw Church perform nearly four dozen different songs on those two nights alone. In Pittsburgh, we met Buckshot, a West Virginia native who turned to us after every song and screamed, “This is America right here, man!” In Cincinnati, we met Jon Lester and Anthony Rizzo of the world champion Chicago Cubs, who seemed equally as thrilled as Buckshot, if perhaps a little more reserved. Church has a way of taking stars and making them seem very normal, which is exactly that same normalcy that seems to appeal to his fans.
At the Phoenix stop on the tour, Michael Phelps hung out backstage, looking more like a music fan than a swimmer with 23 Olympic gold medals. He attended the national championship game with Church later that week, just two people at the very top of their respective professions watching a college basketball game. This was just a normal day on the Holdin’ My Own tour.
Church’s guitar tech, Michael Joe Sagraves, is a diehard Kentucky fan. He’s the one who whispers Carolina basketball score updates to Church when the singer is onstage and the Tar Heels are playing. Church isn’t a bandwagon Carolina fan. He’s hardcore, and spent one very late evening after the Cincinnati show analyzing the 2018 lineup possibilities if Tony Bradley decided to turn pro.
At one stop on the tour, Sagraves was asked for his first reaction when Church told him he wanted to plan an entire tour of three-hour shows that were different every night. No one in music does this. No one in music even considers this.
“I thought he was crazy,” MJ says.
Maybe he is. It was surprisingly grueling just to watch the two-set performance as a fan, so there’s no telling how demanding it is to actually perform it. But yet, there is Church in his t-shirt, jeans, and aviators, and when you looked around the arena, every single person—every single one, even those in section 202, as far as possible from the stage while still being located inside the arena—were on their feet. Go to any event in any arena anywhere, and that’s how you know it’s connected with the folks who bought the tickets. The lower level is on their feet because they’re close to what’s happening. The upper level only rises when they feel something, and every one of them felt something on this tour.
It was very much like going to a revival. “I’ll tell you what,” Church told every audience. “I’m going to give you everything I’ve got, and you’ve got to give me everything you’ve got right back.” Both parties to the deal took it very seriously.
Before the Cleveland show, Boone was relaying his exploits of the day, which included whipping a friend in a shooting contest.
“Maybe you can give me a shout out if you get on stage tonight,” the friend told him.
And then the five-year-old left absolutely no doubt whose son he is.
“If I get on stage?” he asked incredulously. “If I ever get off stage.”