Before the NCAA tournament, Theo Pinson changed out his screensaver to a picture of himself, in the immediate aftermath of last year’s title game – a constant reminder of the pain he felt in the wake of that loss.
As they have progressed toward this spot, to another chance at a championship, North Carolina’s players have deflected – gently at first, then more directly – inquiries about what happened last year, and how it relates to them.
New season. New team. New opponent. So they say.
And yet there’s no denying that this game is on a continuum with that one, that one cannot exist without the other, that they are linked not only by circumstance but by the way the first directly propelled these players back to the second, at times perhaps without them even realizing it, at other times most explicitly. Sunday, there was no denying it.
“You can try to act like you don’t remember last year, but you’d be lying to yourself,” Pinson said. “It definitely gives you the extra drive of, we’ve got to finish it. We got to the same spot last year, and we understand that feeling.”
It’s no coincidence Justin Jackson named the players’ now-famous group chat “redemption,” as that notion has been on their minds since the moment Kris Jenkins’ shot ended their season in defeat, with no chance to answer.
Redemption, by definition, involves compensating for a defect, for a failure. That’s a harsh way to look at how last season ended, as there was no shame in losing the way North Carolina lost, separated from overtime by a mere 4.7 seconds, but it served as fuel for the ensuing 12 months: throughout the summer, moving on without Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, in critical moments of the NCAA tournament.
What was it, after all, on all of their minds as they sat, down five to Arkansas, with three minutes left in their season? It doesn’t end here. Not now. Not yet. There’s still more to be done.
And it was the memory off that Arkansas game that lingered with them when they found themselves in essentially the same situation against Kentucky, a far more powerful and less forgiving opponent, the belief that they were meant for something bigger and could not be stopped then flowing through them, even as they beat the Wildcats on a sequence eerily similar to the one that saw different Wildcats break their heart in Houston.
Even against Oregon, when the Tar Heels went almost six minutes without making a shot at the end of the game, when they missed four free throws with a chance to all but put the game away, when they did just about everything to try to lose a game they appeared to have won, they found a way to make the one play that made a difference, Pinson tipping out Kennedy Meeks’ second missed free throw, Meeks grabbing Joel Berry’s missed free throw and throwing it to Pinson.
They have made it to this point with Berry limping and Isaiah Hicks struggling and every opportunity to stumble along the way. And each time defeat has loomed, they have been able to draw upon their collective belief that they were meant for more: For this. For Monday. For another chance to win the national title they were denied last April.
“I know it’s been on my mind a lot,” Berry said. “I just don’t want that same outcome. We just have to focus on what’s going on right now and not worry about last year. We can’t change that. We can only control what’s about to happen.”
Will that be enough to beat Gonzaga and complete this journey of so many months? Hard to say. Gonzaga, like Villanova, is a worthy and formidable foe. The game is likely to come down to the finest of margins, again. What North Carolina has, and Gonzaga does not, is the awareness of just how fine those margins are, and how long and excruciating the pain can be when not only victory but an opportunity to respond is denied.
The Tar Heels spent the entire season working to get back to this spot. This is their chance not only to answer, but have a legacy of their own.
“Now that we’re here, I feel like, daggum, just play,” Pinson said. “I mean, this is what we’ve been waiting on.”
No one will forget what happened last year, but there’s a chance by the time Monday turns into Tuesday, everyone might remember it only as prelude to this year.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock