Before The Loss – the one that will be remembered for as long as North Carolina plays basketball, the one early last April on the final Monday night of the season – there was the disappointing, ugly defeat at Virginia on Feb. 27, 2016.
Exactly one year later, UNC endured another disappointing, ugly defeat at Virginia. That one happened on Monday, and now the Tar Heels wouldn’t mind repeating some history – right up until the national championship game, that is.
“I did tell them how ironic it was, the same thing,” UNC coach Roy Williams said, referencing the similarity between his UNC’s past two games at Virginia.
A year ago, a UNC team that looked like it could be a national title favorite stumbled toward the end of the regular season at Virginia. Then the Tar Heels won 10 consecutive games, and didn’t lose again until Kris Jenkins, a Villanova junior, made one of the most memorable shots in college basketball history.
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This season, on Monday, a UNC team that looks like it could be a national title favorite stumbled toward the end of the regular season at Virginia. Now the Tar Heels are hoping to build on that experience the way they did around a year ago at this time.
“Honestly last year was kind of the same as this year,” said Justin Jackson, the junior wing forward. “They just played harder and had more intensity. And for us, we realized that had to come out and play each and every game as hard as we possibly could. So I think last game kind of did that.
“I know it did it for myself. I think it did it for pretty much everybody on the team.”
The circumstances are a little different. After the 79-74 loss at Virginia last year, the Tar Heels needed to win their final two regular season games, against Syracuse and on the road at Duke, to win the ACC regular-season championship. And that the Tar Heels did.
Their victories in those two games came by a combined nine points. In the process, UNC shed the perception that it wasn’t tough enough to thrive amid pressure, and the Tar Heels only became tougher during the ACC tournament and beyond.
This year, UNC has already earned at least a share of the ACC regular-season championship. And the Tar Heels will be the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament regardless of whether they defeat Duke on Saturday. And the questions of toughness? Those have never existed for this group, anyway.
Jackson said he thought UNC could use the 53-43 loss at Virginia on Monday “as the same motivation as last year.” And yet there’s something else motivating he and his teammates, too: their desire to keep the regular-season championship all to themselves.
Only Notre Dame can tie UNC for first place atop the league standings. The Fighting Irish plays at Louisville on Saturday afternoon, and if Notre Dame wins it’d share the regular-season championship if UNC loses against Duke later in the day. It didn’t sound on Thursday, though, like UNC is much interested in sharing.
“I want to win the ACC outright,” junior point guard Joel Berry said, “and not share it with anyone else.”
A Tar Heels victory against Duke on Saturday would give some credence to the idea that maybe the Virginia loss might serve as some kind of turning point, as it apparently did last year. After that defeat a year ago, Williams told his players on the bus that they still controlled their own destiny in the conference race.
Then came the memorable senior night victory against Syracuse. And the win at Duke.
Those performances, Williams said, “got us really going.” Now comes another senior night at the Smith Center. Williams became emotional talking about that on Thursday, as he’s prone to do and, as always, the intensity will be higher, the pressure greater on Saturday against Duke.
“It’s a little different” than last year, as Jackson put it, because the Tar Heels have already secured the top seed in the ACC tournament. Nonetheless, they’re still seeking the kind of performance that could serve as a catalyst throughout the postseason.
“I was disappointed last year, at Virginia, but I think I was more disappointed in how we played this year,” Williams said. “And so there are some similarities but we’ll have to wait another week or two or three or four or five or six to see what happens.”
No. 17 Duke at No. 5 UNC
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill