Theo Pinson and his North Carolina teammates walked through a large tunnel on Thursday and entered University of Phoenix Stadium, a behemoth of a building in the middle of the Arizona desert.
They climbed a short staircase and walked onto the court and looked up high and around. The building was ready for its close-up, all decorated with Final Four logos and NCAA branding, the phrase “the road ends here” seemingly ever present.
Those words – “the road ends here” – are written on the edge of the court, and the Tar Heels took a moment to put this journey of theirs into perspective. They’d made it back to the Final Four, through the madness of March, for the second consecutive season.
“A dream come true,” said Pinson, the junior forward. “We walked out onto the court, we were just talking about (what) an honor it is, and just how crazy it is that we’re here back to back … It’s something we talked about, but it’s like now that we’re actually here, it’s crazy.”
From the moment last season ended, the Tar Heels, who play against Oregon on Saturday night in a national semifinal, envisioned being back here, on this stage. They went through a mourning process – for some it was longer than others – after the way last season ended.
Some of them sought to re-watch the 77-74 defeat against Villanova in the national championship game, when Kris Jenkins made the game-winning 3-pointer as time expired. Other UNC players, along with coach Roy Williams, never wanted to see it again.
After that game, Williams told his players to use the heartbreak as fuel. It powered them through summer workouts, and through long, sweaty nights at the Smith Center, where junior forward Justin Jackson and others often went to work alone.
The heartbreak inspired a mission, too: redemption. For nearly a year now, the Tar Heels have been driven by the quest for it, and now they’re arrived at the only place that can offer it. And yet now that they’re here, the focus has changed.
At least, Williams and his players say it’s changed. Just two weeks ago, they happily spoke of their season-long goal of reaching this point. They shared details of their group text message conversation, and how Jackson had named that text message group “redemption.”
Now that they’re back in the Final Four, the talk of redemption has quieted. And Jackson and his teammates, as difficult as it might be, have tried to push thoughts of last year, and the ending, into the back of their minds.
“I just think we’ve just got to focus on this year,” said Joel Berry, the junior point guard, “and what’s going on now. And I know we can look back at last year, and just say that’s motivation.
“But we’ve just got to focus on what’s going on now and just realize that yeah, we made it back to where we were last year, but it’s a different team.”
Had he been in the locker room, standing there next to Berry, those words might have made Williams proud. His fear before the team arrived in Arizona, after all, had been “that everyone’s going to talk and those guys are going to talk about national championship game last year,” Williams said earlier this week.
All the talk of last year, and redemption, made Williams anxious. It made him cautious.
“If we don’t beat freakin’ Oregon, we’re out there in a yoober trying to get our butts back to Chapel Hill,” Williams said, mispronouncing “Uber,” “And so we’ve got to focus on Oregon, is what we have to focus on. And they will hear that a heck of a lot from me.”
That has been clear enough since the team arrived in Phoenix, which isn’t too far away from University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale. Williams is coaching in the Final Four for the ninth time – nine more times than any other head coach here – but he has dismissed the alleged value of such experience.
He has also said his team’s experience, having been on this same stage just one year ago, also won’t make much of a difference once Saturday night comes around. Not entirely satisfied with deconstructing those two narratives, Williams turned his attention on Thursday to another.
He spoke about the redemption angle. He spoke, in particular, about his team’s text message group. Perhaps predictably, it led to some unique Ol’ Roy comedy, with Williams attempting to grasp the technology behind sending text messages to a number of people at once.
“Don’t give me any junk about we’re going to read – what’s the website or whatever, redemption?” Williams said, confusing a website with a text messaging group. “What is it?”
He looked up at the group of reporters sitting before him: “Redemption? Group chat – that’s what we’re doing right now as far as I’m concerned, we’re having a group chat. I don’t know anything about all that other junk.”
Then Williams collected himself. The comedy show ceased.
“But seriously, my focus is to make sure they understand we’re here to play Oregon,” he said. “If we play well against Oregon, perhaps somebody may let us stay around and play another one.”
Only then, with a victory against Oregon on Saturday, would the Tar Heels find themselves in the same position they were in a year ago. And only then would they earn the opportunity for the vengeance they so desperately have sought.
Until then, the Tar Heels have tried to put last year out of their minds. They walked onto the basketball court here on Thursday after traveling a different road. Now they hope it ends in a different place, too.