Thousands of students like myself and fans visiting from afar left Franklin Street last evening as if their hearts were ripped from their bodies.
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was seemingly in uncharted territory during last night’s championship loss to Villanova. The Tar Heels had every bit of momentum. They were clicking on all cylinders. They had spent so much time and effort proving all of their harshest critics wrong. But alas, Villanova guard Kris Jenkins sunk the the sharpest and most devastating nail in UNC’s coffin.
This is not to imply that UNC was dead or even dying. They were far from it. After letting a five-point halftime lead get away from them, the Tar Heels had an important choice to make. Roy’s boys were down by ten points with just a few minutes remaining to a Villanova team who probably felt that their 58.3% team shooting performance against UNC was sub-par. But the Tar Heels could have rolled over and admitted defeat right then and there. They did not. Instead, the Heels scratched and clawed their way back into a game that probably should not have been for their taking any longer. No quit, no sympathy, no self-destruction – just fight.
With less than two minutes to play, North Carolina guard Marcus Paige maneuvered around a treeline of Villanova defenders to attempt an acrobatic layup. Through enormous amounts of contact, Paige missed the shot. But in pure Carolina fashion, he pulled down his own rebound, and resiliently finished his own work in the paint. Those are the types of plays you cannot teach players, at least not at that point in the game when the intensity is immeasurable. And if you thought that was a big play, you forgot to watch the rest of the game.
On what ended up being their last possession of the game, Marcus Paige received a pass that was a split second away from getting stolen by Villanova center Daniel Ochefu. But Ochefu over-committed to the surprise of most viewers. ‘Nova guard Ryan Arcidiacano ranged over to help defend Paige at the perimeter with Ochefu now on the floor. And Arcidiacano arrived with plenty of time to force Paige into a bad shot.
Paige rises up. Double-clutches the ball. Shoots…
For what seemed like an eternity, Marcus Paige floated in the air, doing whatever he could to direct the ball into the net. The ball looked as if it would hit the moon before it would even think about coming down. But like every big shot Paige has ever made in his four years at UNC, he simply found a way.
4.7 seconds remaining in one of the most entertaining national championships, and the score was tied at 74 thanks to one of the most ridiculous shots in NCAA history. That shot was so clutch that Michael Jordan had to have seen shades of himself in Marcus’s Carolina blue uniform from about five rows up at NRG Stadium. But in typical heartbreaking fashion, that shot just could not determine the game’s outcome.
Villanova coach Jay Wright drew up the perfect play. Everyone keyed in on Ryan Arcidiacano. He had been killing Carolina around the floor all night. But he would not have taken that shot. Only one guy was going take it – Kris Jenkins. The background of his close familial relationship with UNC guard Nate Britt was the only thing that could dictate such a storybook ending for this battle. Jenkins got the ball with about 2.5 seconds left, and nobody was able to pick him up off the pass.
Jenkins puts up the shot. For the national championship…
I swear in that final second between the ball leaving Jenkins’s hands until it sunk, you could hear a pin drop throughout the entire town of Chapel Hill. Carolina fans were hoping and praying that Jenkins would have cooled off since he had been hot all night. But no. Jenkins lit it up, icing the game with nothing but goose-eggs on the clock. As much as UNC had tried to force Jenkins into bad shots to go cold throughout the game, he never gave in. But in this moment, what he did to the Tar Heels was as cold as the ice in his veins.
The officials went over to confirm that the shot got off before the buzzer. But North Carolina knew it was in. Why would you sit around and wait for the same referees who called the most ticky-tack fouls against you confirm your worst nightmare? So Roy’s boys, as well as the massive gathering of UNC supporters both in Houston and at home, rounded themselves up, collected their emotions to the best of their abilities, and went home. No trophy, no championship, nothing. Just silence.
Those are the types of endings you long for as a sports fan, unless you are on the wrong end of them. As a student at UNC Chapel Hill, I was on the wrong end of the result. But then again, I was not alone. I had my Carolina family with me. Duke and North Carolina State communities spewed their insults, but they did not matter. In those moments leading up to the game, during the game, and just afterward, those students and fans were irrelevant. They had their time on the pedestal, and even though we did not finish the way we would have wanted to, it was our time to savor. It is always a wild journey to get to the final game of the season, and those Tar Heel boys worked their butts off to get there. Perhaps that is what the tobacco road schools worry about the most in times like this – irrelevancy. Only time will tell who is relevant at this time next year. Nothing more until then.
I am reminded of a valuable quote by E. A. Bucchianeri at times like this. It goes a little something like:
“When all is said and done, grief is the price we pay for love.”
This loss should hurt. It will probably make some nights sleepless, knowing how close we were to raising another banner in the Smith Center. But it should be seared into our minds because we can never forget what our boys did for us and for our school. They took a university out from underneath a dark cloud of scandalous criticism, which they had no relation with whatsoever, and brought it into the sunlight. The accomplishments that Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, and company made at North Carolina were some of the most priceless conceptions imaginable. Because in the end, this group brought us hope and paired it with incredible success. Perhaps Michael Jordan himself said it best to the team in the locker room after the final buzzer: “I’m proud of you.” And to that we issue a collective “WE are proud of you.”
Thank you for being friendly faces. Thank you for always making it “a great day in the neighborhood.” But most of all, thank you for always making it an even better day to be a Tar Heel. We love you.
I am currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Growing up in a sports family, I have formed a distinct love for the industry. I enjoy writing about sports in my free time and hope to one day be able to pursue it as a career.