The smell of smoke is a good thing on Franklin Street. It smells like victory.
Moments after the last few seconds ticked off the clock in North Carolina’s 77-76 win over Oregon in the Final Four in Phoenix, UNC fans in the bars in Chapel Hill emptied into the street, and met with a roar at Franklin and Columbia. With chants and small fires, hundreds of the Tar Heel faithful celebrated their second year playing the last game of the season. UNC will meet Gonzaga Monday night in the NCAA tournament final, a clash with the highest stakes between one of college basketball’s most storied programs and one of its nouveau blue bloods.
With its win over the Ducks Saturday night, Carolina reminds us that the sweet ain’t as sweet without the bitter. A six point lead with a minute to go had everyone at Top of the Hill already looking to Monday night. But five quick points from Oregon and four missed free throws later, memories of Villanova began to creep back. And then just like that, it was over. Chapel Hill exhaled and then it screamed.
Meeting back in Chapel Hill from different coasts, Patrick Cohle and Ed Cruz are here with friends for their five year reunion. This was their spot, they said, when they were undergrads, and they wanted to be back for the NCAA semifinal.
“This is the epicenter on campus for Carolina basketball culture,” Cohle said. “It’s the center of gravity for the campus and the campus identifies with the team.”