ATLANTA — In 2005 and 2009, North Carolina lost in the ACC tournament but won the NCAA championship.
The Tar Heels will try to walk that same path this season after losing, 85-82, to Florida State in the ACC tournament championship Sunday - a high-caliber game in which UNC came back from a 16-point deficit but couldn't quite scale the mountain against a Seminole team that played superbly.
Only a few hours later, the Tar Heels were announced as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Their first NCAA game will be Friday in Greensboro against the Lamar-Vermont winner.
North Carolina can take a little solace in Sunday's performance. This time the Tar Heels lost by three points instead of 33 to Florida State and did so without ACC Defensive Player of the Year John Henson, who didn't play at all for the second straight day due to a left wrist injury. Henson played only seven minutes the entire ACC tournament, and if he's not totally healthy in the NCAA tourney that will be a real game-changer for UNC.
Don't think that this loss didn't matter to the Tar Heel coaches and players, who were very downcast following the game. Even though this is a UNC team that has pointed toward the NCAA tournament all year with the goal of winning it, the Tar Heels also haven't won an ACC tourney since 2008 and wanted this one badly.
"We are really disappointed," UNC coach Roy Williams said.
Florida State exposed the Tar Heels' defensive liabilities that Henson so often covers up as UNC's unofficial goalie. The Seminoles shot 62.5 percent in a 49-point first half and 58.9 percent for the game, placing four guards in double figures. In the final two games of the ACC tournament, the Tar Heels blocked only one shot in 80 minutes.
"It changes things a bit," Tyler Zeller said of Henson's absence. "But we have to be able to win with the players we have."
Florida State, though, was simply the better team on Sunday. As Williams put it, the Seminoles "didn't screw it up" when UNC started playing desperately good basketball in the last 12 minutes. Usually, the team that is ahead has to do so (as UNC did in the Duke game in February) to let a team all the way back.
The Seminoles are in fact capable of winning a national championship, Williams proclaimed following the game. And that could be true if everything fell just right - the Seminoles' guards are excellent and their big men are physical. Florida State beat both Duke and UNC twice this season, the first time the Seminoles have ever done that.
"We're not just some random team from Florida," FSU guard Luke Loucks said. "We're in the thick of things every year."
So are the Tar Heels, of course, and this one loss won't really change much about their season. They played very hard most of Sunday and had two 3-pointers that came close in the final six seconds that could have changed things.
Many fans, though, will still consider this season an unmitigated success only if the Tar Heels can win another national championship and a failure if they don't - especially if the Tar Heels can't advance to the Final Four. Their March is only beginning. They hope to take six Henson-sized steps to the championship that really counts starting this week with the first of what they would like be six games in the NCAA tourney.
First, though, they are going to need to get Henson on the floor.
Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140; email@example.com