SAN ANTONIO — Roy Williams doesnt often share things he tells his team in the locker room because, he told reporters Sunday night, Its none of your business, OK?
After his teams season ended with an 85-83 loss to Iowa State, though, Williams, who just completed his 11th season as North Carolinas coach, let people inside. He shared a story about the 2009 Final Four, and how when the Tar Heels arrived in Detroit they used pain from the past as motivation.
Inside UNCs small, somber locker room on Sunday night, Williams painted the scene.
I told them in 2009 we get to the facility for the semifinals in the Final Four, and Bobby Frasor stood up and said, You remember what we felt like last year in 2008 when we left the locker room because we didnt come out ready to play in the first (part) of the game?
Bobby and those guys remembered that all year long. Tyler Hansbrough came back to school in 2009 because he didnt like that feeling. He wanted to try to win a national championship. So I told them, use that as fuel to motivate them.
The Tar Heels on Sunday night were too hurt, too shaken, to think much about the future. Marcus Paige, the sophomore guard, wiped tears from his eyes while he spoke with reporters about a late turnover he believed cost UNC a trip to the Sweet 16. All around him, his teammates silently changed clothes and prepared to go home.
Nobody was in the mood to look ahead, past the disappointment of a defeat that came after Iowa States DeAndre Kane made a game-winning layup with 1.6 seconds to play.
Kanes layup began a strange sequence in which the game ended without UNC ever attempting a final shot. After Kane drove the lane and banked in a difficult shot, Nate Britt, UNCs freshman guard, received the inbounds pass. The clock didnt start, though, and started only as Britt reached midcourt and signaled for a timeout.
Officials met at the scorers table and watched the replay. They ruled that had the clock started as it should have, time would have expired before Britt called for time. Williams, meanwhile, said hed been trying to call a timeout the entire time.
Its very difficult, he said. But nobodys blaming the officials.
That the Tar Heels didnt have a chance to take a final shot already seemed to haunt Paige and his teammates. Paige, especially, wanted one last shot one last chance to atone for his rare late-game mistake. His turnover with 31 seconds left he left his feet with nowhere to go with the ball, and Iowa State took the lead moments later left him blaming himself for the defeat.
James Michael McAdoo, the junior forward, said it was crazy talk for Paige to blame himself.
Marcus kept us in the game, McAdoo said. And thats what I say to that. Hes the heart and soul of this team. You can look at every game of the year, especially the bigger games where he just stepped up and led the team to victory. And I love that dude like my brother. So thats just crazy talk.
Reason for optimism
Paige and McAdoo formed the Tar Heels nucleus they were the Tar Heels most productive players and the two most responsible for leadership on and off the court and they also represent the greatest reason for optimism going forward. Both are likely to return next season.
Paiges father, Ellis, recently said that his son would remain in school for at least three seasons. McAdoo has never been in a hurry to leave.
He turned down the NBA draft after his freshman season, when he was projected as a potential lottery pick. During a recent interview, McAdoo spoke of how much he appreciates the college experience and his life at UNC outside of basketball.
Asked about his future on Sunday night, McAdoo spoke in the short-term.
(Im) just trying to take this loss in and just get over it, he said. Get over this hump with my brothers and go back to school tomorrow.
Neither Paige nor McAdoo is projected as a first-round NBA draft pick. If they both return, UNC would enter next season among the favorites to win the ACC. The Tar Heels will lose Leslie McDonald, the senior guard who averaged 10.4 points per game, but they could return four starters and all of their contributors off the bench.
Help on the way
Williams has also built a three-player recruiting class that is considered to be one of the best in the nation. Justin Jackson, a forward from Tomball, Texas, and Theo Pinson, a forward from Greensboro, are ranked among the top 10 prospects in the nation by ESPN.com. Both will help fill voids on the wing.
Joel Berry, a point guard from Apoka, Fla., is expected to add backcourt depth, and his presence could allow Paige more opportunities to score. UNCs incoming class is ranked third nationally, according to ESPN.
Though the future is promising, the Tar Heels werent focused on it on Sunday. The finality of the end of the season was difficult to grasp.
The Tar Heels exceeded expectations after losing P.J. Hairston, their leading returning scorer, to an impermissible benefits case that forced his dismissal. He never played in a game this season.
Then, after a 1-4 start in the ACC, UNC won 12 consecutive games. Williams, who described this season as the most difficult of his career, said the Tar Heels entered the postseason with big-time dreams, and UNC was on the verge of reaching the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
UNC on Sunday led Iowa State by eight points with 4 1/2 minutes to play. A trip to New York City and the East Regional semifinals seemed likely. And then in the span of a few moments a couple of Iowa State 3-pointers, some missed shots, a couple of turnovers time ran out on UNCs season.
The Cyclones made seven of their final eight shots from the field. UNC missed five of its last seven.
Im going to miss this team, our seniors, all the way down to the walk-ons, Paige said. You know, we all bought in. A lot of people wrote us off when P.J. (Hairston) got dismissed from the team. People wrote us off when we were the first UNC team in history to be dead last in the conference after three or four games.
But this team fought and clawed.
Paige, who was named first-team All-ACC and the leagues most improved player, said the Tar Heels would have to use this as fuel for next year. Thats what Williams told them to do.
There is a mourning period, though, and UNC entered it on Sunday night. Paige tried to describe what it felt like.
Going back to class (on Monday), theres no practice at the Smith Center, he said. I love this group of guys so much that its going to be hard to accept the fact that 100-some practices and all the shootarounds, all the days of lifting weights and coming together its done.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter