SAN ANTONIO — North Carolinas players walked out of their locker room Sunday night with red eyes and dried tears, the sounds of another game playing on moments after their season ended the realization it was over still coming into focus.
It hasnt really sunk in, to be honest with you, James Michael McAdoo, a UNC junior forward, said after the 85-83 loss against Iowa State on Sunday night in the NCAA tournament East Region quarterfinals. Its just like a lot of emotion.
In the moment, McAdoo said he was numb to it. Roy Williams, the UNC coach, has described this as his most difficult season, and it ended in one of the most difficult ways imaginable with Iowa State winning with a DeAndre Kane layup with 1.6 seconds to play, and with the Tar Heels failing to get off a final shot.
The game ended not with a buzzer, but with a whistle: The officials ruled time had expired before Nate Britt, a Tar Heels freshman guard, called timeout. After Kanes layup, Britt received the inbounds pass and sprinted past mid-court, where he attempted to call for time.
The clock, though, had remained stuck on 1.6 seconds after Kanes layup. The officials conferred and ruled that had the clock started as it should have, it would have run out before Britt signaled for timeout. Later, Williams said hed been trying the entire time to stop the clock.
Lets not anybody lay it on the officials or anything like that, Williams said. We didnt call the timeout with 1.6 seconds to play. The referee said that the clock operater started the clock late, and they didnt recognize my calling the timeout.
And then when they did recognize the timeout and went to the monitor, they realized the clock operator had started the clock late so there should not have been any time left when they did make the observation that we were calling timeout.
Before the officials ruled the game over, Williams had drawn up one final play. The Tar Heels (24-10) would have attempted to set a screen for Marcus Paige, a sophomore guard, and he if was covered, the plan was for freshman forward Kennedy Meeks to pass to Leslie McDonald, the senior who scored 18 points in his final college game.
Coach had a play that he had drew up on the board and I was just ready to execute it to the best, McDonald said.
That play, though, only existed on Williams whiteboard. UNC never had a chance to put it in motion.
The Tar Heels, the No. 6 seed in the East, led by eight points with about 4 1/2 minutes to play and at that point, Paige said, he and his teammates felt in control. Theyd rallied from a nine-point deficit during the first half and had come back after third-seeded Iowa State (28-7) led by seven with 15 minutes remaining.
At that point, I thought we were OK, and (that) we were going to be able to handle any punt that they threw, Paige said of leading by eight with 4 1/2 minutes left.
Paige recounted that moment with tears in his eyes. Iowa State trimmed the Tar Heels lead from eight to two points with a pair of 3-pointers one from Naz Long and the other from Monte Morris, whose 3 cut UNCs lead to 76-74 with three minutes to play.
About a minute later, Iowa State forward Melvin Ejim tied it at 76 with a layup. And thats how it went in the final minutes back and forth and back again, one dramatic momentum shift after another. There was a McDonald 3 that gave UNC a three-point lead, and another Long 3 that tied it.
And then, after that, a play Paige said hell think about between now and the start of next season. With the score tied at 81 and less than 30 seconds to play, he drove into the lane and jumped, as if to go up for a shot. Caught with nowhere to go, he attempted a pass that Ejim easily stole. The turnover led to an easy Kane layup.
If hed had a thousand more chances, Paige said, he would have made a better play a thousand times.
Ive made plays for this team, said Paige, who led UNC with 19 points. My teammates trust me in those situations. They wanted me to have the ball, I wanted to have the ball. I didnt make the play. And at the end of the day, Im the one that has to go through the next six months thinking about that one play, and how it cost us the game.
Twenty-seven seconds remained, though, after Kanes layup. McAdoo tied the score for the 10th time with a pair of free throws with 15 seconds remaining, and then Kane scored the last of his 24 points with 1.6 seconds left.
Kanes winning layup came after he drove into the lane, UNC forward J.P. Tokoto trying to keep up.
Hes a quick guy, Tokoto said of Kane. Hes crafty around the rim, as well. Thats a bad combination for anybody guarding him.
Not long after Kanes layup, and after a tortured delay that ended with an inevitable conclusion, it was over. Williams eyes were red, too, when he walked out of the locker room to walk to his news conference.
Inside the locker room, hed talked more about the season than the final game. The Tar Heels endured the drama that cost P.J. Hairston his eligibility, and they won 12 consecutive games after a 1-4 start in the ACC their worst in school history.
Their difficult season came with a difficult ending, but one that left Williams with a sense of pride.
I loved my team, he said.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter