Carolina, John Henson Finally Had Enough
“Hates it physical” was a line in the scouting report that the News and Observer’s UNC beat writer Andrew Carter found on the copier in the Smith Center in early January. It applied to both Carolina big men John Henson and Tyler Zeller, but it’s been the rap on Carolina in general.
“Soft” is a word that’s often been used when discussing the Tar Heels. And it’s not as if they haven’t earned it at times this year.
In Las Vegas against UNLV, a team full of undersized bigs killed Carolina on the boards en route to the Tar Heels’ first loss. Florida State stomped on Carolina’s face, then kicked it in the head a few times for good measure in a 33-point beat-down in Tallahassee.
“At the beginning of the season, Coach (Roy Williams) told us, ‘We just need more toughness because we’re missing easy shots around the rim, not doing all the things that show toughness’,” North Carolina freshman P.J. Hairston said.
To be physical with the Tar Heels, to get in their heads legally and cleanly, is easier said than done. Florida State managed to do it quite well, even provoking John Henson into a technical foul late in their romp over Carolina in January for slapping the ball out of Okaro White’s hands (a frustration play, but childish in hindsight).
And so when Henson felt Creighton’s Grant Gibbs got in a few extra slaps at his injured wrist at the 13:44 mark of the first half, he took exception. “(Gibbs) hit at my wrist about 3-4 times after the whistle had blown,” Henson said. “It got me a little fired up. It was just a culmination of things.”
It’s rare to find Henson without a boyish grin either already plastered on his face or threatening to poke its way out. Even Henson’s anger seems to be masked with a tinge of good humor.
But there were nothing but bad intentions on the gangly seven-footer’s face as he held the ball behind his back and walked chest-first into Gibbs, sticking his face right into Gibbs’ as he let him know what he thought of the play.
“John is probably the goofiest guy I know. He does nothing but laugh and smile and joke around, so when he gets mad, it has to be for a reason,” Hairston said.
Gibbs didn’t make eye contact with Henson and seemed uncomfortable in the moment, and the referees stepped in quickly to separate them. But Henson earned a technical foul for his outburst, and Gibbs walked back towards the Creighton bench and gave his team a wink.
There have been varying interpretations of that wink. At best, Gibbs was trying to entice Henson (mission accomplished) and at worst, he was trying to see how hurt Henson’s wrist actually was.
“I used to tell my guys all the time (that) I would fight anybody on a basketball court because you just pose for a second and then people come around and separate you,” Roy Williams said. “I want to see a guy who wants to fight on the playground when everybody’s going to say, ‘Okay, we need a little break, you guys go at it.’ That’s the guy I like on my team.”
Both Gibbs and Henson certainly showed elements of the fake bravado that comes with basketball fighting, although judging by how both reacted, neither seemed down for playground fighting, particularly Gibbs.
But it’s hardly new: it’s the kind of physicality that teams have displayed against Carolina all year. Creighton’s Gregory Echenique delivered a forearm shiver to an unsuspecting Tyler Zeller as he ran down the court (completely intentional; even head coach Greg McDermott lectured Echenique about the play afterwards) and there was plenty of off-ball contact not whistled.
It’s become as much a part of opponents’ game plans as getting back in transition or crashing the defensive boards. “We just have to play through it. That’s just one of the big things that we have to overcome: say someone’s bumping us, we talk to the ref. We’ll tell the ref and the ref will look out for it,” Hairston said. “Then that’s when we just play through it and play hard.
“And that’s when our run starts – if someone tries to get aggressive with us and we score on them, we get in their head first before they get in ours.”
That’s how the Tar Heels chose to respond. If it was a culmination of factors that led Henson to blow up, it was just as much that for the team in general. They are fed up with the perception that they can be pushed around, and they have shown that the last month.
It’s hard to identify the exact moment – Hairston said it was the game at NC State, a game the Wolfpack so desperately wanted. Carolina came out and quieted the hostile NC State crowd every time it wanted to get riled up.
“We just came out (at NC State) and went on this run and it showed,” Hairston said. “Then when we went to Duke, we played that whole game like it was just pure toughness. You could tell it in our eyes.”
That Duke game was revenge for Carolina’s earlier loss to Duke at home. But it was also a cleansing of sorts. The Duke loss in Chapel Hill had been a microcosm of Carolina’s season to date: flashes of brilliance mixed in with head-scratchingly silly plays and a failure to finish.
Closing the regular season in Durham, Carolina showed they have grown beyond that team. Instead of half-hearted efforts to get around screens, Carolina guards deftly maneuvered through them as a tall teammate stepped out to hedge hard on the perimeter.
Duke didn’t beat Carolina from the three-point line because the Tar Heels wouldn’t allow it. They exerted their will. Carolina’s failure to do that in prior games was a reason people questioned their toughness. It was a reason that the scout on them has been to rough them up, get in their heads, because they can’t handle it mentally.
So when Henson had his wrist slapped at, it wasn’t just about their teammate. It was a challenge to the entire team. “It sparked us. The next play, it was a big scramble on the floor for the ball – me, Harrison (Barnes) and like four other players,” Hairston said.
“It just pumped us up and when you pump us up, it’s not a good thing for the other team.”
No, it isn’t. Creighton learned that the hard way, as Carolina went on a 27-13 run over eight minutes to take a 39-24 lead with 5:33 to play before half.
It hasn’t always been pretty for Carolina. They aren’t the best offensive team (even with point guard Kendall Marshall, who could miss the remainder of the tournament with a broken wrist). But when Marshall was in foul trouble at Maryland, the Tar Heels fought through it. They could have felt sorry for themselves. But maybe it was that game in College Park when they realized no one is going to feel sorry for them.
If they want to withstand runs by opponents, they have to score. If they want to stop runs, they have to defend. Sometimes, it really is that simple.
And they have to expect that if Marshall does play, opponents will target his wrist. Seeing how Henson reacted the last time someone got in a few shots post-whistle, an opponent will likely “test” Henson’s wrist as well. They’ll just have to respond the same way they did against Creighton.
The Tar Heels had shown toughness in other ways this season, like staring down an opponent after a big play or dunking late in a game at Maryland to quiet the College Park residents.
Whether those types of actions represented fake toughness is debatable. But for Roy Williams, the only kind of toughness he cares about is the kind that shows up on the scoreboard. They’ve shown that the last month, through all circumstances.
“After John perceived it to be unfair on (Gibbs’) play with him, my whole team got fired up. My statement is, ‘Let’s beat them on the scoreboard. That’s the only place that matters.’
“The way our team responded, they didn’t like what had happened to John and the next few minutes, we really played inspired basketball. But you don’t need to talk – just play,” Williams said.