By Adam Lucas
THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS ARENA—None of us want to do this. I understand that. But we must. There simply is no other way.
All of us understand that we do not need, in any way, to inflate the New Yorker’s opinion of their city’s relative importance in the world.
But we simply have no choice. Not after Carolina’s come-from-behind, 89-84 overtime victory over Ohio State on Saturday.
Saturday afternoon was a special experience even before Pete Nance drained an improbable turnaround jumper to tie the score as the regulation buzzer sounded. It was magical after that.
End. I’ll say it. There is something special about playing at Madison Square Garden.
To be clear, the previous two days, when it was rainy and cold virtually all day and there were giant puddles on every street corner and they were using a squeegee to get standing water off the Rockefeller Center ice rink, were not of postcard quality. But after a brilliant sunny and cold Saturday when the streets were bustling and seemingly every Tar Heel in New York was packed into the Garden and the Heels were putting an old-time Dean Smith-type comeback on the Buckeyes, I don’t like it but I will begrudgingly say it, just like on the t-shirt:
I love New York.
This game couldn’t have happened in Las Vegas or New Orleans or, you know what, even Brooklyn—all past CBS Sports Classic sites. This game had to be at the Garden.
Chatting with facility security guard Mark B. in the hour before the game, he was asked how long he’s been working games at MSG. His answer:
That’s a pretty good view of history. So what sticks out to him?
“Ali-Frazier was a big one,” he said.
It’s just a different kind of sports history here. Ali-Frazier, from March of 1971, is better known as the Fight of the Century. Playing in the Garden comes with that sort of historical flavor. Of course, it also comes with certain other quirks—a rat ran across the Tar Heel Sports Network broadcast location on Saturday—but you can mostly chalk those up as “charm” when you’re playing in the world’s most famous arena.
And it’s more than just sports history. Less than 24 hours before Carolina and Ohio State tipped off, Mariah Carey was playing to her second sold-out crowd of the week in the same exact venue. Mariah (who was two hours late, but that’s sort of like the rats, it’s just part of the charm) moved out, the Tar Heels moved in. That’s the kind of company you’re in here. Everything about the production is world class. When you’re there, it truly feels like you’re at the most important game in the world.
“And it’s not just sports,” Mark said. “All the great concerts, I’ve seen a couple of Popes…eventually, everyone who is someone comes through here.”
After Saturday, the Tar Heels look a little more like someone. Ohio State is a tough, physical team that tried to make it a tough, physical game. For part of the day, it looked like it might work. But Carolina finished with more rebounds, more second chance points, more offensive rebounds (on the same number of missed field goals) and more points in the paint than their Big Ten foes.
Here’s something that might go unnoticed: Carolina went out and won this game. Ohio State didn’t hand it to them. Just like in the rest of New York, you don’t succeed without talent and execution. Down 79-77 with two seconds remaining, the Tar Heels had only one option: execute everything perfectly. One slight misstep and the game was a loss and all these positive feelings about New York are a little less shiny.
But the Heels had two timeouts banked. So they used one with two seconds left to remind everyone of a play they practice regularly—Leaky Black throwing the ball to RJ Davis at midcourt to call another timeout. There’s a key detail there:
“We practice that play a lot,” RJ Davis said. “The key thing is to catch the ball on the correct side of the halfcourt line. If we call the timeout behind the halfcourt line, the ball has to be inbounded back there.”
That’s why Davis very purposefully moved himself into the frontcourt before calling that second timeout, and that’s what set up Black’s gorgeous pass to Nance for the game-tying bucket.
“In those two timeouts, the coaches kept telling us we were fine,” RJ Davis said. “With the way we practice and trust our coaches and each other, the main message was to stay together. There was a lot of time left, and we were going to win the game.”
Hubert Davis gave assistant coach Jeff Lebo credit for drawing up the play to Nance, which is not part of Carolina’s usual late-clock sequence. But the Tar Heels wanted to take advantage of Nance’s length and his comfort in taking that turnaround jumper. That’s it. They liked the matchup. That play, in those 1.2 seconds, gave Carolina the best chance—nothing more than a chance—to tie the game. It was one of the final moves on a day when Hubert Davis made some terrific in-game adjustments, including changing the entire flow of the game by increasing Carolina’s defensive pressure in the second half.
There are no guarantees in coaching. There is only trying to maximize as many advantages as you can find and hoping that’s enough to get one point more than the other team, and that one point will absurdly but completely change your outlook on the entire rest of the day—and sometimes the season .
It was the perfect setting for that kind of game. A spontaneous chant of “Tar…Heels” echoed through the building before Carolina even took the floor. The national anthem singer, Marisa Ann, was incredible. RJ Davis was announced during pregame starting lineups as being from “Nuuuuuuuuuu York.”
“It’s the best place to play in the world,” RJ Davis said. “The fans are great and they’re into it. It’s live action here. You get that New York energy and you feed off that. I didn’t realize that so many Carolina fans are part of that New York energy. I looked around , and basically the whole stadium was Carolina blue.”
Almost as soon as he was hired, Hubert Davis stated he wanted to bring Carolina Basketball back to Madison Square Garden, a place where he had fond memories both as a Tar Heel and as a New York Knick. And he was exactly right: New York, and specifically the Garden, matters to Carolina. And vice versa, too. You could feel it in the building on Saturday. These people could have gone to Radio City Music Hall or Bryant Park or the Plaza, but they came to Madison Square Garden and they weren’t leaving without a Tar Heel win.
Everything that happened on Saturday proved him right.
“I’m so thankful they got this experience of playing in New York City in Madison Square Garden,” Hubert Davis said. “There’s nothing like it. This is a game they will remember for the rest of their lives.”