Senior Day an emotional, nervous time for UNCs Williams

For the Tar Heels and their coach, the emotion of Senior Night is just one more thing to complicate an already emotional game against arch-rival Duke

Madeline Gray—North State Journal
North Carolina guard Stilman White (30)

CHAPEL HILL — It doesn’t take much to get Roy Williams emotional, so it goes without saying that a tear or two will likely be shed Saturday on Senior Night at the Smith Center. The North Carolina coach got misty eyed just talking about it at a press conference two days before the big event. But sadness and nostalgia aren’t the only two emotions Williams will feel on the occasion of his team’s final home game. There will also be fear. Fear that his tradition of starting every upperclassmen on his roster, even the walkons, doesn’t come back to haunt him by forcing his Tar Heels to spend the rest of the game playing catchup. “We go over it two or three possessions and I’m over there nervous that we’re not down 27-0,” Williams said. “For the most part they’ve handled it pretty well. I’ll start five of them. How long they go depends on how they do.” Most of the time, things turn out alright. Only once since 2010 have the Tar Heels trailed when Williams took the walkons out of the game on Senior Night. That was in 2015, when they fell behind 10-4 to a Duke team that went on to win the national championship and lost 84-77. And even then, there were three regulars in the lineup for those first nine possessions along with first-time starters Luke Davis and Jackson Simmons. While some coaches choose different ways of honoring their seniors other than putting them out on the floor to start their final home game — especially in situations like the one at UNC in which Senior Night is celebrated against a bitter rival every other year — Williams does it as a way of repaying the loyalty to those that have been loyal to him. “When you’ve played for me for four years, Jiminy Christmas, you’ve put up with a lot of BS,” Williams said. “I’ve felt for the walkons, but you also feel for the guys that have been with you for four years. “I’m fairly corny and all that stuff, but I can be a guy that’s not fun to be around if you don’t do what I want you to do. I push guys harder than most of them have ever been comfortable. So if a guy hangs in there with me for four years, it’s pretty special.” Or six years, as in the case of Stilman White, one of this year’s seniors. White sat out two of those seasons while serving a Mormon mission. Saturday’s start against Duke will be his first since he was pressed into service in the 2012 Sweet 16 against Ohio and Elite Eight against Kansas, when he recorded 13 assists and no turnovers in 60 minutes of action, “It’s been a long road, that’s for sure. Longer than most,” said White, who will be joined in the lineup by fellow Blue Team member Kanler Coker, along with regulars Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt. “Six years ago I started here as a freshman. Thinking back on it I can’t believe how fast its gone. On Senior Day you always get to see the seniors start the game, so I’m excited to be able to do that. And I’m glad my Senior Day gets to be against Duke. That makes it even more special.” Special for the players, perhaps. For their coach, the emotion of Senior Night is just one more thing to complicate an already emotional game against the Blue Devils. “Senior Day and Duke on the last game of the season usually has a lot of other things riding on it, so it complicates things trying to balance out one game, because that’s still what it is. One game,” Williams said. “It does give you some enthusiasm, it does give you some momentum, all those kind of things. It’s complicated because there are a lot of things always, but it basically boils down to one thing … it’s still North Carolina against Duke.” Meeks said he get sad when he thinks about Saturday’s game being his last ever at the Smith Center in a UNC uniform. That’s why he’s trying his best not to think about that and concentrating on reversing the result of the Tar Heels’ first game against the Blue Devils this season — a loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium. “You don’t do anything different,” he said of his preparation. “You just have to treat it like another game. We just have to prepare ourselves a little more than we did our last game and everything will take care of itself.” Once the game is over, regardless of the result, the emotions are almost certain to flow. Meeks said he’s not sure what he will say in his postgame senior speech since he plans on “winging it” rather than relying on prepared remarks. “I’m just going to try not to cry,” he said. His coach will likely take care of that for him.