CHAPEL HILL — This was supposed to be a celebration.
First, for Roy Williams as his 879 victory tied him with his mentor Dean Smith for fourth-all time among Division I men’s basketball coaches.
Then for Jeremiah Francis, who in the matter of a month, has gone from playing his first minutes in two years to helping the Tar Heels seal a 70-67 victory over Yale with five points in 19 seconds.
Instead, the mood changed entirely with 3:05 remaining on Monday night as Anthony Harris, playing in his fifth game after recovering from a torn ACL in his left knee, crumpled under the basket after awkwardly twisting his right knee without contact from a defender.
On this night that should have been a celebration, the crowd gasped and teammates buried their faces on the bench, fearing the worst for the freshman guard who had quickly provided a spark in his time on the court for Carolina.
Before Williams addressed the historic moment, he pointed his attention toward Harris.
“The only thing I’m thinking about right now is that young man,” he said. “He’s just a tough little nut; he’s worked his tail off to get back into this position. Our hopes and prayers that nothing is seriously wrong with him.”
Francis, his roommate and partner in rehab and the weight room, fought back tears several times as he took questions after the game.
“It was a hard-fought win, it’s what we expected; Yale is a good team,” he said. “I’m really thinking about Anthony right now.”
It was an unfortunate twist in what was becoming a storybook rise for both Francis and Harris, who spent their first several months together grinding through process of recovering from a torn ACL. Francis, who suffered the injury twice, didn’t play his junior or senior seasons in high school. Harris, tore the ACL in his left knee last December.
Together, they made their college debuts on Dec. 4 vs. Ohio State.
“That’s my brother, and I hope everything is good,” Francis said. “Y’all don’t know what we’ve been through to get here, waking up at 6 a.m., lifts, trying to get everything healthy. I love him and I just wish (him) the best.”
What Francis and Harris have done for the program can’t be measured in the box score or the improved assist rate or increasing number of fast break opportunities — it’s beyond basketball.
Williams goes in to work out three times per week at 8 a.m., and every time during the preseason Francis and Harris had been there since 7:30, getting in their work with strength coach Jonas Sahratian and Doug Halverson.
“Toughness, that’s the biggest thing,” Williams said. “I mean guys, I’m dumfounded. Dumbfounded how they have played with such little practice they’ve had.
“The work ethic those kids show, (with) what they have been able to accomplish…”
It wasn’t just Williams who’s been impressed.
Throughout the preseason, when veterans took questions about “the freshmen,” it generally meant Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot.
Often, they’d point out the work of Francis and Harris in the weight room as an inspiration, too.
“They worked hard at what they do, and those guys by far worked the hardest to get back on this team, just being in here every morning before everybody, working, staying after, getting treatment … doing the right things and everything Doug asked them to do to get back, and I’m proud of those guys,” senior Brandon Robinson said.
It’s uncertain what’s next for Harris, as the extent of the injury can’t be confirmed until further testing, but based on the emotions from his teammates, it sounded like he’s in for another battle to get back.
“Rehab has to be your basketball game,” Francis said. “You have to take it seriously and I’m going to tell him that.”
On a night that Francis got his first college start and played well enough in 27 minutes to help guide his team to victory, he again came face-to-face with the only thing that has ever made him doubt whether he’d be a Carolina basketball player, and this time, he could only watch as it took down the only person who knows what he’s been through to finally be on this stage.
Friends and competitors since fourth grade, they became something even more in their short time together in chapel Hill.
“That relationship really developed coming (to UNC) going to the weight room early in the morning, working out,” he said. “It’s really hard to see him go down, especially when I know what he’s been through. It’s really hard right now.”
Tonight, they were supposed to celebrate their first win together on the Smith Center floor.
“I’ve been surprised and elated with what those two kids have been able to do for us, but again, say all our prayers and hopefully we come out OK,” Williams said.