The season was over, and with it, one more year of eligibility. Marcus Paige didn’t find much peace in the finality of it, only the kind of urgency that comes when time is running out.
“They say college is the best four years of your life,” Paige, a North Carolina junior guard, said after the Tar Heels’ season-ending 79-72 defeat against Wisconsin on Thursday night. “I’ve already used three of them. It’s a harsh reality, for me.”
Now Paige and his teammates look ahead. After a long season, a strange season in some ways, with as many valleys as peaks – and with more variance between the two than coach Roy Williams could ever remember – UNC came home Friday.
The Tar Heels began the season ranked among the top six teams in the nation, and they ended it in a regional semifinal for the first time in three years. In between there was no shortage of injuries, inconsistency, second-half collapses and finally, a March renaissance of sorts.
What to make of it all?
“It was a great season,” junior forward Brice Johnson said Thursday night in the locker room at the Staples Center. “We could have (done) a lot better in some areas, but I’m really proud of my teammates for fighting the way that we have throughout the entire season.
“Because at one point during the season people were probably looking at us like, hey, they might not make the tournament. But look at us now, we’re in the Sweet 16.”
UNC hadn’t made it this deep into the NCAA tournament since 2012. It hadn’t lost a Sweet 16 game since 1992. The Tar Heels’ other Sweet 16 teams moved on to a regional final, or to the Final Four, or to a national championship.
For this team, though, reaching a regional semifinal might have represented the apex. When UNC was at its best, it proved it could compete with – and beat – some of the best teams in the country. Those moments, though, came with plenty of others that often moved Williams to madness.
“A lot of times coach talks about one play here or there that won us a game, to make that one play,” Paige said. “We missed out on that opportunity a lot this year, and here we had chances and the same thing happened.
“We (were) so close to being an elite team, but this year it’s kind of disappointing because we never really grew to a point where we made that leap or we made that step.”
Can it happen next season? Will it?
The answer depends first on whether UNC returns intact – or as intact as Williams likely expects. The Tar Heels lose two scholarship seniors – Jackson Simmons and Desmond Hubert – and they averaged about four minutes per game.
Paige spoke Thursday night as if he’d give little consideration to leaving. Johnson, meanwhile, didn’t offer a definitive answer when asked about his future, but he said, as many players in his situation often do, that he was focused on the present and on self-improvement.
Neither Johnson nor Paige is projected as a first-round NBA draft prospect. If they return, UNC would likely return its entire starting lineup, as well as all of its key reserves.
There would be no shortage of optimism entering next season, as there was back in October. This time, though, more evidence – more support – would surround such optimism.
Justin Jackson, a freshman wing forward, entered the season as a heralded recruit but an unknown commodity. He ended it playing more effectively and with more confidence than he did in November, December and January.
Joel Berry, a freshman point guard, overcame a groin injury and became an asset off the bench during the final weeks.
Their emergence late in the season helped UNC reach the ACC tournament championship game, and helped it advance to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.
They also helped provide what UNC lacked during the first three-quarters of the season: a reliable complement to Paige on the perimeter.
Paige also transformed from January to March, and at the end of the season was the player he expected to be at the beginning – the player he might have been all season, if not for the plantar fasciitis that limited him for nearly two months.
UNC’s future direction, though, could be defined as it often was this season: by its post players. Johnson personified the dramatic swings of the team with his inconsistency. Junior forward Kennedy Meeks fought illness and injury that limited his effectiveness during the final weeks.
The Tar Heels’ most significant flaw, though, might have been their inability to avoid long lapses. They lost double-digit second-half leads at Louisville, at Duke and against Notre Dame in the ACC championship game. They led Wisconsin by seven points midway through the second half.
“If you think about it, you take away six minutes in a Notre Dame game and we would have had a great run here in the end,” Williams said. “But you can’t take away the six minutes. You take away the 7- or 9-0 stretch, and we had a great run (Thursday).”
When Williams met with reporters for the final news conference of a long season – the most difficult season of his career, in a lot of ways – someone referenced golf, one of his favorite pastimes.
The question was if, after a few rounds, a little time to get away, Williams might look forward to next season and the possibilities that will come with it.
Williams, though, said he couldn’t care less about about the thought of golf. His mind was somewhere else.
“I want them to use this as fuel,” he said. “The little lapses … a failed box-out here or missed free throw there, were important. And if we can take care of those little lapses, then we’ve got a chance to be one of those teams that has a chance to talk about winning the whole thing.”