The loss at Notre Dame taught North Carolina about toughness, again. Roy Williams, the Tar Heels’ coach, openly questioned it that night, as he had so many times before.
The loss against Duke at the Smith Center provided UNC with a lesson in finishing, of being relentless. And one of not forgetting about Brice Johnson, the All-American senior forward, too.
The loss at Virginia might have been the most important. Williams on Monday suggested it was. The Tar Heels went back and watched film of that game, and they learned about attention to detail and the importance of effort.
On the way to the Final Four, where UNC will play against Syracuse on Saturday night in a national semifinal, the Tar Heels have won 32 times. They wouldn’t be on their way to Houston without the past four victories that have come in the NCAA tournament.
And they might not be on their way to Houston, either, if not for the six defeats that in various moments humbled them, devastated them, angered them, embarrassed them. Most of those six losses taught UNC lessons it might not have received otherwise.
“I think each and every loss you learn something,” Williams said this week. “I’ve always said you’d like to win when you play poorly and still get the win, but you can learn from that. It’s a fact that the kids, you’re getting their attention a lot more after a loss.”
Defeats forged UNC into the Final Four team it has become. Most of its defining moments this season, arguably, have come in defeat. And yet learning how to win was important, too.
Here are the five moments that most shaped the Tar Heels on their way to the Final Four:
1. A victory escapes in South Bend
Date: Feb. 6
The moment: UNC failed to hold a 15-point lead and had no answer for Notre Dame’s 11-2 run that tied the score near the midway point of the second half. The Fighting Irish finished off an 80-76 victory.
It was another loss that had Williams questioning his team’s toughness, questioning its heart. Williams said after the defeat that his players had to learn to play well amid more challenging situations – and not just in easier moments.
“All of a sudden, they wanted it more,” senior Brice Johnson said of the defeat. “We can’t allow that to happen.”
2. The meltdown in Chapel Hill against Duke
Date: Feb. 17
The moment: The Tar Heels led by eight with less than seven minutes to play but couldn’t hold on amid a series of baffling sequences that led to a 74-73 defeat.
From a pure pain perspective, none of UNC’s defeats hurt as much as this one. It was a defeat that left some UNC players in tears on their way back to the locker room.
Said Williams: “It was very painful to everyone because we felt like we sort of had the game under control, sort of felt like we were in charge. All of a sudden the game is over with. We look up, they have one more point.”
It was another lesson in toughness and finishing. UNC also learned the importance of keeping Johnson involved in the offense. Two of his 29 points came in the final 10 minutes, and the Blue Devils capitalized on his lack of involvement.
3. So close, yet so far, at Virginia
Date: Feb. 27
The moment: The Tar Heels and Cavaliers were tied at 49 with a little less than 13 minutes to play before Virginia took control with a 16-5 run and withstood UNC’s late comeback attempt.
There was no shame for UNC in its 79-74 loss at then-No. 3 Virginia. Yet it was how his team lost – and not just that the fact that it had – that bothered Williams and his players. When the Tar Heels returned to Chapel Hill, Williams during a film review session focused on Virginia’s attention to detail.
Where the Tar Heels endured lapses in some aspects – on a screen, perhaps, or being in the proper defensive position – the Cavaliers were sharp. Virginia’s effort was superior, too.
“We learned something from a couple of effort plays that Virginia made,” Williams said. “I think that was the one thing I can bring from that one.”
Senior guard Marcus Paige described the defeat at Virginia as “a big moment.” The Tar Heels haven’t lost since.
“It just showed us what more was left to do,” Paige said. “... To come up short at their place kind of let us know that there’s still a lot that we needed to do, and then I think we did that for the rest of the year – have done it, still.”
4. Redemption at Duke
Date: March 5
The moment: UNC and Duke were tied at 49 with about 12 minutes to play, but this time, the Tar Heels finished with poise – and with some clutch free-throw shooting in the final seconds, when UNC made eight throws to seal the game in the final half-minute. After the gamewas tied, the Tar Heels outscored Duke by nine over the next 8 1/2 minutes in a 76-72 victory.
With how the first game against Duke ended, and with how both games ended last season– with the Tar Heels surrendering second-half leads in all of them, and double-digit leads in two of the three – UNC had good reason to celebrate. That, and because this win clinched an ACC regular-season championship.
5. A defensive turning point in the ACC tournament against Pitt
Date: March 10
The moment: UNC trailed by six with less than four minutes to play in the first half against Pittsburgh in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. From there the Tar Heels closed the half on a 10-0 run, one that grew more decisive with every defensive stop – six consecutive in all to close to half. UNC’s final points of the half came on Joel Berry’s layup off of his steal near midcourt.
After the Tar Heels’ 88-71 victory Berry spoke of that moment before halftime – his steal and layup and the all those defensive stops that came before it. That, Berry said, is when the Tar Heels realized the potential of their defense.
The defensive intensity has carried over since, as have other lessons UNC learned along the road to the Final Four.