NEWARK, N.J. — There were tears and sad faces in North Carolina's locker room Sunday at the Prudential Center.
But then, that's to be expected.
One way or another, the NCAA tournament breaks the hearts of 67 teams. It's exactly what makes the event special, compelling, memorable.
So it was only normal that the Tar Heels' 76-69 loss to Kentucky in the East Regional championship game will qualify as the bummer of a lifetime for many of these Carolina players.
But at some point - days, weeks, possibly months down the road - Roy Williams and his team will reflect on 2010-11 as an important period of program regeneration and a season of genuine overachievement.
They were the last ACC team standing after a season in which they lost three important nonconference games early, got completely jolted in an early league game by one of the worst teams around (Georgia Tech) and lost two of three to Duke.
Before the first tournament game was even played, they had lost Reggie Bullock to injury and saw Larry Drew II quit the team.
And yet, Carolina finished 29-8 and could possibly have seven of the first eight back next season in addition to the arrival of a much-needed outside shooting specialist, P.J. Hairston, and a big bruiser, James McAdoo, to help take some of the weight off Tyler Zeller and John Henson inside.
"This is a great group," Williams, wiping tears, said after the game. "I told them I really wouldn't trade them for any other team in the country. They made coaching fun."
But Williams said something else of importance. In the midst of all the pain and emotion, Williams said he didn't want the players to forget the feeling of coming close and failing to get the ultimate reward.
"Bobby Frasor said that in 2009 to the team [which had lost to Kansas the season before] - 'Remember how it felt last year' was what he said.
"I want them to use this as fuel to get better."
And if NBA prospects Zeller, Harrison Barnes and Henson come back for another run, North Carolina will get better. Much better. Given a complete returning cast, it's difficult to imagine anyone else going off as the preseason No. 1 pick.
The loss Sunday can be remembered eventually for what it was in the long run - the better team won.
UNC defeated the Wildcats in Chapel Hill earlier this season, but Kentucky improved late it the season more than any other team in the Southeastern Conference and most of those in the nation.
Without question, there were some freaky aspects to the game.
Henson, who had not fouled out of a game all season and had committed only 17 personals in the past 11 games, was in deep foul trouble almost the entire game.
Kentucky won the 3-point shooting contest, 36-9, and at least four of the Wildcats' 12 hits were defended to max.
With about 10 seconds left, Williams took a hit to his right knee by diving Wildcats star Brandon Knight. The coach limped off the court and was in obvious pain but said he was not seriously hurt.
Again, that's the NCAA's trademark - some pain, some agony, some remorse.
But in the end, this is a season-ending loss the Tar Heels can live with and eventually use to their benefit.
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