More than 30 minutes after the shot, the North Carolina coaches sat outside their team’s locker room, silent, dazed. Confetti still covered the court at NRG Stadium in Houston; already, Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer at the buzzer played over and over around the country, on TV and on Twitter.
Roy Williams, denied his third national championship as the Tar Heels head coach, slumped in a chair and stared ahead. By his side Hubert Davis, then in his fourth year as an assistant, held his head in his hands while he looked at the floor.
Several minutes passed before anyone moved or said a word. They left because they had to leave, eventually. That was one moment in the long, unforgettable night after Villanova’s 77-74 national championship victory last April, when the Tar Heels finished on the wrong side of history.
For Davis, a UNC alum who understood the pain of coming so far only to lose in the Final Four, as he and his teammates did against Kansas in 1991, the tears didn’t come until the next day.
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Among the thousands who gathered on Franklin Street for a celebration that started and then quickly ended; among the millions watching at home, many with UNC posters or diplomas on their walls; among the players who actually experienced it … how many had broken down at the sight of Jenkins’ shot?
Kennedy Meeks, now a senior forward, did in the immediate aftermath. Surrounded by reporters in the locker room he tried to blurt out words that his sobs muffled. Some of his teammates took refuge under towels. Others just stared, their expressions blank.
The next day Davis approached the bus outside of the hotel, waiting to take the Tar Heels back to the airport in Houston. His father was there and Davis, recounting the moment not long ago at a local sports club, shared what his dad told him: “You look destroyed.” That’s when the finality of it hit.
Losing that game to Villanova was much more than just, ‘We lost the game.’
“Losing that game to Villanova,” Davis said, “was much more than just, ‘We lost the game.’ ”
It was the way they lost, in perhaps the most agonizing fashion in NCAA tournament history, but it was more than that, too. It was the loss of what a victory would have symbolized, an intangible significance that would have stretched well beyond record books and a banner in the Smith Center rafters.
For years, Williams and his staff had felt unfairly targeted in the fallout of a long-running scandal. They’d felt victimized, their integrity questioned for wrongs they believe they played no part in. And so winning a national championship would have been immensely gratifying.
And yet that was but a part of what Davis described, too, because the defeat represented the demise of a team Williams and his staff loved. A month before the season ended, Williams said that team, led by seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, had become his all-time favorite.
In 28 years as a head coach, 15 of them at Kansas, Williams had won two national championships and led seven teams to the Final Four. When he declared Paige and Johnson and their teammates as his favorite team ever, those players had never advanced past an NCAA tournament regional semifinal.
One month later, they were tied with Villanova with 4.7 seconds remaining in the national championship after Paige made an off-balance, double-clutching 3-pointer. The shot sent souvenir seat cushions flying throughout NRG Stadium. UNC fans danced in front of their seats.
And then a timeout ended and Jenkins inbounded to Ryan Arcidiacono. He moved quickly … 4 seconds left … and crossed midcourt … 3 seconds … and cut to the middle … 2 seconds … and passed to Jenkins … 1.8 seconds … who released the shot … 1 second … and watched it go in while time expired.
“I’ll see it somewhere,” UNC junior guard Joel Berry said not long ago of Jenkins’ shot, which has more than 2.3 million views on YouTube, “And I’ll just try to not look at it.”
Berry and his teammates begin another season on Friday, at Tulane. It is a season that will begin like so many others have begun at UNC. There is optimism and there are great expectations. There are players who are All-ACC candidates, a couple who could be All-Americans. There are questions, too. This is how it usually is.
And yet it’s unique, because few teams in college basketball history have experienced the kind of on-court trauma the Tar Heels did last April. Any discussion about the start of this season begins with one about the end of last season. It’s true for TV talking heads and writers and even for Williams.
Don’t think I will watch the game for a long time. I’ve seen the shot, of course, a lot.
On the first day of practice, in early October, he gathered his players around him. He referenced a phrase he had repeated so often last season. Back then he told his team that it could be among the last two teams playing on the final night of the NCAA tournament.
This time, in early October, Williams added a new wrinkle: He told his players they could again be one of those two teams playing on the final Monday night. Only now Williams paused and added: “But we need to be the last team standing,” according to Theo Pinson, the junior forward.
It was a clear reference to reaching the national championship game only to lose by three points amid some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable – Paige’s all-timer of a shot tied it, followed by Jenkins’ to win it. Williams and his players have all dealt with the aftermath in their own ways.
Some have watched the game over again, like Isaiah Hicks, the senior forward who has ascended into a starting role after coming off the bench his first three seasons. Most, like Berry and Pinson, who both arrived at UNC together two years ago, have not watched it.
“Don’t think I will watch the game for a long time,” said Pinson, who is expected to miss eight to 12 weeks while recovering from a broken foot he suffered in a practice last month. “I’ve seen the shot, of course, a lot. But I don’t think I’ll watch the game.”
About a week after the game, Williams predicted he’d never recover emotionally. It was a dramatic statement. Sometimes he likes to exaggerate. Someone asked, after just days had passed, what it’d been like to lose like that, on that stage, with that much at stake.
Williams thought about death. He wondered if he’d be over it even then, in his final hours.
“You can ask me the day before I die,” he said. “I’m sure that I won’t be recovered then, either. That’s very dramatic, that kind of thing. But I don’t think you ever get over it. I really don’t.”
About six months later, Williams was back at the Smith Center. Practice had started. Players had just received their new jerseys for team picture day. Williams had a new right knee, after surgery in May. He walked with more ease, smiled more, felt better. The hope of a new season filled him.
And yet, well … the end of last season has cast a long shadow. Paige and Johnson are gone, for one. Those who are still around are left to fill their voids, both in production and leadership. And then there’s the game and the ending and the journey that preceded it – working all year to go somewhere.
And then that happens. A month before the start of the season, though, there was no talk of dying a broken man because of what happened during a basketball game. Yes, Williams, said, he had grieved. He had hurt. No, he hadn’t watched it over again. No, it doesn’t keep him up at night.
Williams told a story like he so often does to convey a point. The story was about a coach who despised that his team finished in second place. The coach was so angry, so dissatisfied, Williams said, that he “smashed the second-place trophy in front of his team.”
“I thought how sick that was,” Williams said. “So that’s never been me. I thought we had a great, great year but it’s just somebody pulls your heart out and taunts you by shaking it in front of you. But you’ve got to get over it.”
And yet that isn’t exactly a part of Williams’ playbook, either. There’s no blueprint to just “get over it,” no tangible way of knowing how that directive is progressing. Like Williams said about a week after the loss, it’s going to stick with him for life. Pinson said he thinks about it multiple times a day.
“It’s random,” he said. “I can’t explain when it happens. It always happens at different times.”
One sight that triggers those thoughts are when he walks onto the court at the Smith Center. He looks up and sees all of those national championship banners hanging, ones from 1957 and 1982, 1993, 2005 and 2009 and … and there’s the empty space where one from 2016 would have hung.
Inside the UNC locker room, there’s another large reminder. It’s a big team picture of last year’s group, Paige and Johnson featured prominently, along with fellow departed senior Joel James, and walk-ons Justin Coleman and Spenser Dalton.
“I’m really just going to miss that month that we had together,” Pinson said. “It’s something that I can’t even explain.”
Players blame themselves
Pinson is among the most expressive players on the team. Everybody remembers his antics during that run last March, how he’d show up during the middle of a press conference, sneak up behind Roy Williams, peek around him and make everyone laugh. Those were fun times for the Tar Heels.
Or the time when Pinson broke out in an impression of Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels’ football coach, inside the locker room early during that tournament run. Pinson kept things loose and he’ll be asked to do that again this season, even while he’s unable to play.
While Pinson doesn’t mind talking about the Villanova game, others are quieter about it. Justin Jackson, the junior forward, said he didn’t feel like leaving his room for a week after it happened. That Final Four was like a homecoming for him, having grown up outside of Houston in little Tomball, Texas.
He might have thought about that loss every time he came home. Then his family moved to Kansas City.
“So I don’t necessarily have to see Houston much anymore,” he said.
Even though I wasn’t guarding him, I was still close. But honestly, I don’t think I bothered the shot, because of how much space he had. He shot it deep.
In quieter moments, still, Jackson finds himself wondering what he could have done better. If he’d made those two free throws he missed, or if one of the four shots he’d missed from the field had gone in. An extra rebound here, a steal there, and maybe things are different.
And those are thoughts everyone has had. Kennedy Meeks, the senior forward, missed seven of his eight shots from the field. Johnson, the departed All-ACC forward who led UNC in points and rebounds, never quite established himself in the post the way he had so many other times.
In the days after, though, no one questioned his role more than Hicks, the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year who was essentially a starter by season’s end. In the final seconds of the final game, Hicks was on the court, along with Berry, Paige, Jackson and Johnson.
When Arcidiacono crossed midcourt, Hicks was backpedaling toward the top of the key. It looked like he was prepared to help defend Arcidiacono if he decided to penetrate. Instead Arcidiacono made a quick cut and passed to Jenkins, who in one motion stepped forward and released.
Hicks, inside the 3-point line when Jenkins received the pass, jumped toward Jenkins when he rose to take the shot from about five feet behind the arc. Hicks extended his left arm, stretched in vain. He was the only UNC player in Jenkins’ vicinity.
Because of that, Hicks felt responsible. In front of his teammates he accepted blame.
Williams publicly absolved him not long after. Yet still Hicks carries that burden.
“Even though I wasn’t guarding him, I was still close,” he said. “But honestly, I don’t think I bothered the shot, because of how much space he had. He shot it deep.
“But on a picture, it looks like I’m close. But a different angle, like from the side view, shows you how I’m nowhere near him. So of course I take the blame.”
That feeling has festered within. Unlike most of his teammates, Hicks welcomed the chance to watch the game over again. He didn’t want to think about what he could have done differently, he wanted to see it, relive his mistakes.
“All I did was learn from it,” he said.
Hicks, then, followed Williams’ advice. He has asked his players to use Jenkins’ shot “as fuel to motivate.” He has told his team it can again be one of the last two playing on the season’s final night. The Tar Heels know what it takes to reach that point, at least.
They began last fall hoping to reach the national championship game and then grew throughout the winter and early part of spring to make it happen. And then, Berry said, “something was taken from us,” and he hasn’t been able to bear seeing it.
A little more than seven months later, that has been the Tar Heels’ challenge: not to wallow in what happened, not to ignore it or forget about it, either. But to find some way to turn one of the most difficult losses in college basketball history into a foundation for another run.
UNC at Tulane
When: 9 p.m. Friday
Where: Devlin Fieldhouse, New Orleans