It was a Carolina basketball win for the ages Sunday evening, as Luke Maye’s last-second shot lifted the Tar Heels over Kentucky and into the Final Four for a record 20th time.
And all along Franklin Street next to the UNC campus, the response from true-blue fans was ... jarringly sedate. Call it March Mildness.
Sure, some fans in houses near downtown poked their heads out their doors and whooped and hollered at their neighbors across the way. A few people honked horns and cheered as they drove through downtown. But traffic continued along Franklin Street unobstructed, and nothing was set afire.
It was a stark contrast to the scene in Columbia, S.C., on Sunday, where University of South Carolina fans rushed to relish the Gamecocks making the Final Four for the first time. Or to the jubilant fans Saturday in Spokane, Wash. – home of Gonzaga, another Final Four newbie – and Eugene, Ore., home of the University of Oregon, with only one previous Final Four berth.
But to the UNC faithful, simply securing a spot in the Final Four – no matter how dramatic that Maye shot was – isn’t enough. They are on a mission for the Tar Heels to win it all next Monday night, particularly considering how close they came last year.
“I can see fans being a little apathetic to this whole song and dance, because this year was about one thing – avenging the loss,” said C. Jackson Cowart, sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel, UNC’s student newspaper. “Last year, once they made the Final Four, they were expected to do so, but it still felt like the mood around campus was fresh excitement because nobody on campus had ever experienced it. But now, 75 percent of students know this feeling. ... So it’s just hoping this team can tie the ribbon on the present that felt inevitable 12 months ago.”
Ah yes, last year, when Marcus Paige hit a three-point shot to tie UNC’s championship game against Villanova. It was a shot so perfect that it could have been silhouetted on a shoe, until it was unceremoniously supplanted seconds later by a Kris Jenkins buzzer-beater that gave Villanova the national title – and left Tar Heel fans feeling incomplete until they get another shot.
We kind of take it for granted. ... I completely understand why the other schools celebrated the way they did, because they haven’t been here before.
Patrick Cox, a self-described UNC ‘super fan’
“We’re spoiled,” said Patrick Cox, a self-described UNC “super fan” who was on hand to welcome the team back to Chapel Hill at 12:45 a.m. Monday morning. “We kind of take it for granted. ... I completely understand why the other schools celebrated the way they did, because they haven’t been here before.”
Cowart remembers a small rush on Franklin Street last year when UNC beat Syracuse in the Final Four to set up the Villanova showdown in the title game.
In 2005, students took to Franklin Street to celebration after the Tar Heels beat Michigan State to reach the title game, but not after the Wisconsin game that got them in the Final Four.
Fans did rush downtown after UNC made the Final Four in 2000. But that Final Four was unexpected – the Tar Heels were an 8-seed that year.
“There’s definitely an element of surprise joy that makes you more likely to run,” said Turner Walston, a writer for GoHeels.com.
Chapel Hill’s police department is more responsible than anyone for keeping tabs on the campus sentiment surrounding big games – they’re the ones who have to deal with the impromptu bonfires and the inebriated fans atop traffic signals.
Captain Josh Mecimore, a spokesman for the department, said Chapel Hill police typically muster extra officers for NCAA games starting with the Elite Eight. Sunday night was no different. Officers were at the ready in case bedlam erupted, though it ultimately did not.
“We also want to make sure that if Carolina loses, that people don’t damage property or anything like that,” Mecimore said. “Historically, we haven’t had that, but I know a lot of communities, when their team loses, people get upset and start to vandalize things and burn stuff. People here tend to act pretty responsibly and respect other people’s property.”
None of this is to say that UNC fans weren’t suitably pleased with Sunday’s victory – only that there’s no script that dictates when or when not to rush the street. Winning a national championship or a victory over arch-rival Duke? Absolutely. A Final Four berth in a year when the Tar Heels have their eyes on a bigger prize? Maybe not.
Cox, a 35-year-old software developer, also suggested that folks might not want to make a public show of celebrating this year’s Final Four out of superstition. He got to the Smith Center around 11:15 Sunday night and found he was the only one there. But he put out a call on Twitter for more people to show up, and they eventually did.
“People are more cautious this year,” Cox said. “It’s like everyone is holding their breath to see if the other shoe’s going to drop. I think people are a little afraid to get excited because they’re afraid of the heartbreak they felt last year.”
Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan