The adage in sports is "a win is a win," and while that's certainly true, a case could be made that North Carolina's 64-53 win over Akron had all the markings and feelings of a loss.
The Tar Heels' record improved to 6-0 on the young season, but they may have learned a valuable lesson in what may go down as one of the worst performances of a Williams-coached team in a long time.
Heading into the season and in the past week, a lot of talk centered around UNC's 2003-04 schedule. Gone were the knockdown drag outs night in and night out of years past. While Connecticut, Kentucky, and Illinois remain on the schedule, Williams watered down the Tar Heel non-conference slate with Cleveland State, George Mason, Coastal Carolina, along with Akron.
While some fans and outside observers were disappointed with having such lightweights in the mix, after Sunday's game and even with every passing moment this season, one thing is becoming crystal clear: Williams knows exactly what he's doing and should his plan unfold as expected, games like this one will become blocks from which Carolina's future success shall be built.
From the outset, the Zips lived up to their unusual nickname by failing to scratch the scoreboard for the first 8:36 of the game. The Tar Heels responded in kind by managing just three buckets over that span and led just 6-0. With both teams coming off a long layoff due to final exams, the rust was evident on the court.
"You don't want to use (the exam break) as an excuse, but it does affect guys," Melvin Scott said. "It looked like we were thinking to much out there. The shots we usually knock down, we were missing. (They were) easy shots too -- layups, free throws and things like that."
While the scoring picked up from that point on in the half, neither team ever found an offensive rhythm, and the halftime stat sheet became Exhibit A to the messy performance. At the break, the Heels led 32-26 but managed to hit just 37-percent from the field while Akron managed to take and make one less shot and ended with 35-percent.
Effort was not an issue, especially from Sean May (10 rebounds) and Jackie Manuel (three blocks), but while effort is important, productivity from that effort is a necessity. Much like last week's win over George Mason, the general feeling in the Smith Center was the Heels were set to translate that effort and explode out of the gate and send Akron back home reeling.
In the first five minutes of the second half, the predicted blowout began to materialize. Rashad McCants' four free throws got the Heels rolling and May's putback pushed the Carolina lead to 43-29. The Smith Center crowd finally rose the occasion and the Carolina rout was set to go.
But while Akron never seriously threatened the Tar Heels, Carolina could never make a big run to push the game out of reach.
Akron's zone defense collapsed around May and Jawad Williams anytime the Heels tried to go inside and Carolina's perimeter shooters failed to make the Zips pay. In the end, the recipe of the Akron zone and Carolina's misfires added up to a sorry batch of stats – stats so far out of character for this year's team the numbers appear almost comical.
Case in point: Sean May, shooting 63-percent on the season, finished 3-of-18 from the field. May did make up for that shocking performance with a career-high 21 rebounds.
"Tonight I just tried to do something to help my team because I wasn't doing it offensively," May said after the game, "I wasn't doing the job I should be doing and [assistant coach Steve Robinson] just kept telling me to hit the board. [Akron's zone] is still no reason for me to shoot 3-for-18. I missed a lot of wide open shots -- no excuse. It was I that did it and I totally take blame for it. Never in my life (has that happened) and tonight will be the last time I do that."
When it was over, the Tar Heels managed just eight buckets in the second half (23.5-percent) and hit only 4 of 21 3-point attempts for the game. Numbers that in the past two seasons in Chapel Hill would certainly spell doom for the Tar Heels' chances of winning.
"Yeah, we would have lost this game last year and my first year because guys wouldn't have been mentally tough to fight, grind it out and win," Jawad Williams said, "It's maturity. It goes back to the players – we are a lot more mature this year."
"Games like this we can easily drop – to opponents we don't think are good. But those guys played hard," Scott added, "It's mental. Last year, we might have lost this game because we didn't have the maturity. We are talented to get by, but we can't just get by because certain teams will continue to execute and hit shots. Any given night, any team can beat us if we lay an egg."
So UNC picks up another win even with a self-described "egg" of a performance. Roy Williams was asked at the end of his somber press conference, following the "win," when the last time he felt as he did about a performance of a team he coached. Following a long pause, he responded, "I am sure there was a time. I coached ninth grade football one year. The quarterback got down behind the guard instead of behind the center and I felt sort of stupid at that point, about the way I feel today."
But in the end, Williams put this game into perspective and closed with his usual brand of humor to lighten the moment.
"It's just a bad day guys," he said. "Great things happen in the world – they got Saddam – I'd like to find one of those daggum holes he was living in and go there for a little while myself."
Up next for the Tar Heels are the Wake Forest Demon Deacons as ACC play begins next Saturday at 4 p.m. in the Smith Center.
*Jackie Manuel tweaked his right ankle during the game but was held out of action as a precaution. His presence was missed as he tallied six points, four rebounds, three blocks and one steal in his 12 minutes of action. "The only guy that played really good was Jackie and it was unfortunate he got hurt," May said when asked about the team's performance. "I love having him on my team and he gave us a spark."
*Over the past two weeks, the Heels have come out sluggish in games they should easily win. May offered his thoughts on just that following the win over Akron. "(We just have to) buy into what coach is saying. Right now I think we are getting a little complacent because we are 6-0 and we are getting a little too ahead of ourselves. We've got to get back to being humble and just going to work. We've got to keep going hard and stop trying to fight what Coach is trying to do. I think we are getting a little ahead of ourselves where we are right now."
*Raymond Felton's high school jersey will be retired in a ceremony in Felton's hometown of Latta, South Carolina on Monday night.