The Tar Heel faithful made their pilgrimage to a sacred spot on the UNC campus Tuesday night – the Smith Center. It was a journey that was much, much sweeter than the one they made last April.
Decked in championship gear, the crowd moved almost as one in the brilliant sunshine to the Smith Center, hours after North Carolina’s basketball blue bloods beat Gonzaga for the national title in Phoenix. It was a year in the making after last year’s bitter championship loss to Villanova.
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Olivia Newell, 22, a senior from Greensboro, recalled watching the disastrous Villanova game at a house party last year. “We walked ourselves home, our tails between our legs,” she said.
Not this time.
On Tuesday, Newell said she kept wanting to “do national championship things, to keep letting it be more real.” Those activities included buying a championship T-shirt, standing in line for a commemorative edition of The Daily Tar Heel student newspaper and “calling my dad, letting him live vicariously through me.” Her father remembers getting out of school to go to the 1982 national championship parade in Chapel Hill.
Watching a giant video screen, the crowd in the Dean Dome erupted as the smiling players exited their chartered plane at Raleigh-Durham International Airport and boarded buses headed for the arena. Senior Nate Britt carried the national championship trophy off the plane. Joel Berry II, who was named the most valuable player of the Final Four, wore a piece of the championship net around his neck.
From inside a small building at the airport, Nixon and Liana Vivolo, ages 8 and 6, hopped up and down as they saw the plane touch down on the runway in the distance.
“I hope I get to see Justin Jackson,” Liana said as she pressed her face against the window. Nixon just smiled.
Rick Vivolo, Nixon and Liana’s dad, said he had picked up his son from school and his daughter from dance class and headed to the airport.
“My wife’s like, ‘yeah they’re landing right now,’” Vivolo said. “So I’m like yeah, what the heck, let’s drive through there.”
The Vivolos are huge Tar Heel fans, and the children got to stay up past their bedtime late Monday to witness the UNC victory.
Monday night’s celebration in Chapel Hill had gone on well into Tuesday morning, with hooting and hollering, bonfires and fireworks on Franklin Street. The festive atmosphere continued all day. There were selfies and tweets and Facebook posts and T-shirt sales and congratulatory phone calls and high-fives from strangers.
The streets were clean again in Chapel Hill by Tuesday afternoon. All the fans had to do was wait, with agonizing yet exhilarating anticipation, for the buses bearing the basketball heroes to arrive on campus.
The Smith Center was a party for all ages – little kids in crazy wigs bobbing up and down, bleary-eyed college students standing on the storied court and grandmas eating popcorn in the stands. Dance music was punctuated by the UNC pep band’s jaunty tunes.
The video board flashed the years of UNC titles – from 1924 to the fresh 2017.
When the screen showed the buses approaching the Chapel Hill exit off Interstate 40, the frenzy intensified. As the buses drove down Franklin Street and through Chapel Hill, fans waved and cheered.
Fans pumped their fists as the band played “Sweet Caroline,” then they got a video replay of the locker-room festivities in Arizona. The team and Coach Roy Williams finally walked on stage at the Smith Center at 7:15 p.m. Thousands of cell phones rose in the air. So did the players’ phones.
“You did a tremendous job of supporting us. ... You guys are true fans, and I appreciate you,” senior Kennedy Meeks told the crowd.
Berry drew cheers when he said, “We basically did our thing and came back home with it.”
Williams read a text he received last night from former UNC player Michael Jordan. “I’m so happy for you and the team. You raised the ceiling to the roof tonight,” Jordan wrote, referencing the memorable quote he made at halftime of the Duke-UNC game last month.
Michele Johnson of Chapel Hill brought her children to the celebration. Isiah, 8, jumped up in front of the TV cameras. He had come to see his favorite player — Isaiah Hicks, of course.
Fans came to see the team home after last year’s title game, too, but far fewer than came Tuesday. It was more of a misery-loves-company therapy session than a celebration.
Johnson was outside the Smith Center then – an event she still has difficulty describing.
“I have no words,” she said, adding, “This year sure did make up for all those feelings.”
Staff writer Jonathan M. Alexander contributed to this report.