North Carolina’s No Good Very Bad Ending to Fairy Tale Season

Posted by Matt Patton on April 7th, 2016

There’s no arguing that North Carolina is among college basketball royalty. The Tar Heels are one of only three programs with a truly national fan base (the other two are Duke and Kentucky). They own five national championships and consistently recruit a level of talent that most programs can only dream of. But with the news of a multi-year academic scandal and corresponding NCAA investigation hanging overhead, the carefully-curated lustre of “the Carolina Way” had faded. The uncertainty of the drawn-out investigation resulted in a surplus of negative recruiting and several classes that lagged behind the other national powerhouses.

Brice Johnson and North Carolina met their match Monday. (photo: Chuck Liddy / Raleigh News & Observer)

Brice Johnson and North Carolina met their match Monday. (Photo: Chuck Liddy / Raleigh News & Observer)

“When you’re a kid growing up, you don’t dream of missing the last second shot, or a team beating you at the buzzer,” he said. “You dream of having that moment. That confetti. Seeing your family over there crying tears of joy. Hugging guys you’ve had blood, sweat and tears with for four years. That’s what you dream of. We were close to that dream.”Marcus Paige

All of this set the stage for Roy Williams to rebrand his team — one of college basketball’s elites — as a Cinderella despite starting the season as the top dog (preseason AP #1). Some experts quickly left the Tar Heels’ bandwagon after they blew a mid-November double-figure second half lead at Northern Iowa (a team that was ultimately one broken press away from the Sweet Sixteen, remember). A narrative has existed over the last few years — promoted incessantly by Dan Dakich’s egocentric view of history — that North Carolina lacked toughness. The early loss to the Panthers played into that narrative, but it more or less became gospel when the Tar Heels allowed a lesser Duke squad to steal a February victory in Chapel Hill even with Matt Jones injured for most of the game. Suddenly Doug Gottlieb was mentioning that Williams was considering retirement to allow Hubert Davis to assume the helm. Since that loss on February 17, the Tar Heels played with an “us against the world” mentality that we hadn’t seen from them.

Williams took advantage of those media critiques (fairly or not) to fire up his team (and maybe himself too), as Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige and Joel James threatened to be his first seniors in nearly two decades to fail to play basketball in April. But after gritting out the last two wins of the regular season against Syracuse and at Duke, the Tar Heels absolutely dominated their first two ACC Tournament games. They then outlasted Virginia in the ACC Tourney finals prior to winning five straight NCAA Tournament games by double-figures. Then everyone wanted back on the bandwagon. The notoriously poor three-point shooting Tar Heels were making an extra long-range shot per game (6.3 3FG/game after Duke; 5.2 3FG/game prior to Duke), and their often porous defense was showing that it could lock opponents down.

Marcus Paige leaves giant shoes to fill in the backcourt. (Photo: Chuck Liddy / Raleigh News & Observer)

Marcus Paige leaves giant shoes to fill in the backcourt. (Photo: Chuck Liddy / Raleigh News & Observer)

“I just talked. You can’t say anything that takes the hurt away and you say anything that changes it. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team I’ve been as proud of. This team, up until the last four weeks, everybody had negative things to say. Man, they did some great things down the stretch. Five straight weeks just fantastic basketball. Marcus, that shot, I’ll never get over that toughness that he has. Those are the memories that I’ll have, but the hurt will never go away.”Roy Williams

It helped that Paige was finally healthy. It also helped that, in his absence, the team started looking to former football star Joel Berry as its image. Williams’ very best teams have been headlined by outstanding collegiate big men — Sean May and Tyler Hansbrough (even Tyler Zeller in 2012 if we’re being honest) all come to mind — but they’re defined by swaggering point guards. Berry’s improved play allowed Paige to play more off the ball and put greater energy into his defense. With Johnson underneath as the anchor, this team suddenly fit the mold of a Williams-era championship team. And they were tougher as a result.

But happily every after wasn’t in the cards. Villanova played a nearly flawless game, and yet North Carolina’s self-made glass slipper didn’t shatter until the final buzzer. Given Villanova’s impressive level of execution (1.20 PPP) combined with the foul discrepancy (-4), it’s amazing the Tar Heels lasted as long as they did (11 threes certainly helped). Ryan Arcidiacono ended up walking away with Most Outstanding Player (and Jim Nantz’s tie) because the assembled media refused to look past the final score, but Paige, even on the losing team, deserved the award. A player often referred to as soft had willed his team back into the game with two of the grittiest plays of the NCAA Tournament during the last minute. When his team looked dead, Paige hit a contested three from the corner; he fought for a put-back basket that no number of viewings will explain; and then he made what can only be described a circus shot destined to replace Michael Jordan’s game-winner in the annals of North Carolina basketball. Until it wasn’t.

Hindsight is 20/20. You can argue that North Carolina should have guarded Arcidiacono and Kris Jenkins closer, but they also couldn’t afford to foul. You can argue Johnson should have been on the perimeter or guarding the inbounds pass, but they also couldn’t afford to give up a layup. The fact is that there was a lot of time remaining and the Tar Heels forced Villanova to take a long, difficult three. At best it was a 40 percent shot; given the moment, probably much worse. But basketball isn’t simulated hundreds of times, it’s played only once. And that one time, the ball dropped through the net.

“You know, just that feeling of walking off the court, feeling the confetti fall, but it’s not for you. It’s a horrible feeling.”Joel Berry

I for one hope this team doesn’t get forgotten in Chapel Hill among the many banners (or any future NCAA punishment). North Carolina’s championship game appearance coupled with regular season and ACC Tournament titles are a fitting tribute to a team that found its mojo and rose to the top of college basketball world before even a superhuman effort wasn’t enough.

mpatton (576 Posts)

Share this story

One response to “North Carolina’s No Good Very Bad Ending to Fairy Tale Season”

  1. PrettyPaula says:

    Nice write up. Sports can be so cruel.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *