This is what the end looked like: Kennedy Meeks in front of his locker, tears streaming down his cheeks, while Brice Johnson stared at the floor, while Marcus Paige answered question after question about the heartbreak, surrounded by microphones, while Roy Williams and the North Carolina coaching staff sat outside in a small hallway, frozen, stunned, unblinking.
That’s how it looked in the aftermath of the Tar Heels’ 77-74 loss on a last-second shot to Villanova early last April in the national championship game. Now nearly a year has gone by, and the time has arrived that UNC has so desperately wanted to experience again – the NCAA tournament. The beginning of what the Tar Heels hope is a new, long run.
However long it lasts, it will begin here on Friday. UNC (27-7), the No. 1 seed in the South Region, will play against 16th-seeded Texas Southern (23-11). By the time tip-off arrives around 4 p.m., 347 days will have passed since the tears and the frozen stares, since the agony that followed one of the most wrenching defeats in college basketball history.
In the days between then and now, how often did the Tar Heels think about it? How often did those who returned relive that defeat, only to imagine the second chance – the last chance, for some playing in their final NCAA tournament – that has now arrived?
“It pops up a lot,” Meeks, the senior forward, said in the Tar Heels’ locker room on Thursday. “Just because you don’t want to get to that point, and then it happens again.”
In the aftermath a year ago, Meeks was inconsolable. He spoke through his tears and his sobs about his disappointment – about letting down then-seniors Paige, Johnson and Joel James.
Now Meeks is the senior. And this is his final NCAA tournament.
“I know I don’t want me or the other seniors, or anyone on this team to feel the way that I did,” he said.
Meeks is perhaps the most active member of the team’s group text message thread. Every member of the team is on it and Meeks, according to junior point guard Joel Berry, sends out messages “twice or triple times” the rate of anyone else.
Sometimes Meeks asks his teammates if they want to get something to eat. Or if “anybody is trying to do this, that,” Berry said. The messages got to be so much, Berry said, that sometimes he sets his phone on “do not disturb” mode.
Every time those messages – or any others – pop up, the Tar Heels receive a reminder. The title of their group text is “redemption,” which is the name Justin Jackson gave it back in the summer, a few months after the loss in the national championship.
Different players defined the idea of redemption in their own ways on Thursday. For Jackson the word has come to mean “getting a national championship back, where we almost were.”
“Not many things do you get to have redos,” said Jackson, the junior wing forward who earned ACC Player of the Year honors. “And Brice and Marcus, they didn’t get to have a redo. Joel (James) didn’t get to have a redo. But for us, we’re blessed enough to be back in this position where we are.
“And we’ve worked our butts off all year.”
“Year” didn’t mean the past five months, since the start of practice. It meant the past 11 months, since the end of last season.
After that defeat, nobody said much afterward. What could be said?
Williams addressed his players, like he does after every game. He told them, he said months later, to “use this as fuel” throughout the off-season, to keep the burning embers of despair aflame long after the immediate pain subsided. And yet Williams didn’t necessarily need to say that, either. Everyone knew.
Even those who played their final college game that night knew that, in some ways, the ending to last season represented the immediate beginning of this one. They wouldn’t be around to experience it but they understood, anyway: The quest to return began as soon as last season ended.
“I think the crazy thing about how our season ended last year, is that, like, what’s understood doesn’t have to be explained,” Paige said during a recent phone interview. “It’s almost like we didn’t have to say anything, because they felt that going into this year, that they had to get back.”
The desire to return has been the one unifying force driving the Tar Heels all season. It drove them even before the season began.
The goal provided Jackson inspiration during his grueling, sweaty summer workouts – sometimes all-day affairs at the Smith Center. The desire to return to the championship game, and to win it this time, helped forward Isaiah Hicks decide to return to school for his senior season. It helped Theo Pinson, the junior forward who suffered a broken foot in the preseason, through his rehab.
Nearly a year ago, the Tar Heels found themselves 4.7 seconds away from entering overtime against Villanova. Paige had just made one of the great shots in NCAA tournament history – a leaning, double-clutching 3-pointer from beyond the top of the key. It tied the game. It sent seat cushions flying. It sent people wearing light blue into delirium, whether they were in NRG Stadium or in their living room.
And then it was over. Villanova’s Kris Jenkins did Paige one better, and at the buzzer.
Now there is a sense of unfinished business. Of not just wanting to win, but needing to win.
“To not only do it for us, the guys that can’t play any more,” Paige said, “but also to avenge what we thought was a championship year, a championship team.”
Paige, who is remembered, among other things, for the sentimental, emotional senior day speech he gave early last March, didn’t leave his teammates with any sort of parting words after the national championship game. There was no rah-rah speech, nothing that could be slapped on a T-shirt or woven into a team slogan.
Some things don’t need to be articulated, though. Wasn’t it obvious, after all?
“We didn’t really have to say much,” he said. “It was kind of like, they knew that – they used that as motivation right away from the beginning of the year.”
In the preseason, it was all some of UNC’s returnees talked about – making it back to the final Monday night of the season. At the time, it seemed like some faraway destination.
First, there was an entire season to play, a four-month grind. The Tar Heels weren’t always as sharp as they hoped. They stumbled at Georgia Tech and Miami, faded in the final minutes at Duke, lost ugly at Virginia. That was it, though: the entirety of UNC’s defeats in conference play.
Even another loss against Duke in the ACC tournament semifinals last week didn’t seem all that bad, given it hastened the arrival of the one tournament the Tar Heels have been preparing for all season long. Now at last the time has come.
“That was the biggest thing for me,” Berry, the junior point guard, said earlier this week, “is being able to get back to this tournament, and be able to make that run again.”
He spoke of the journey a year ago. Not just the victories along the way, but “the overall experience,” as Berry described it – the time together in the locker room, and the travel and the bonding, three weeks of it before that abrupt, crushing ending.
UNC arrived in Greenville on Wednesday, and on Thursday went through the familiar routine – the pregame media circus and a shootaround in front of the fans, then some time together back at the hotel.
“We wanted to get back into the NCAA tournament as soon as we walked off the court last year,” Berry said. “And now that it’s here … we know what it takes to get back to that point, and this time we’re not going to let it get it taken away from us.”
That’s UNC’s hope, at least. Berry and his teammates on Thursday all embraced the optimism.
This is what a new beginning looked like: The Tar Heels in their locker room, waiting to go onto the court for their open practice, waiting for the moment that now was closer than ever – the start of a journey they hope leads them back.
No. 1 UNC vs.
No. 16 Texas Southern
NCAA tournament Round of 64
When: 4 p.m. Friday
Where: Bon Secours Wellness Arena, Greenville, S.C.