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North Carolina dreamed of winning a national title. But the journey ended abruptly

North Carolina’s Coby White on the effect of the loss on seniors: ‘I can’t imagine what they are going through’

Coby White talks about teammates Nassir Little and Cameron Johnson not playing their best due to sickness and the impact seniors Kenny Williams and Luke Maye had on him this season.
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Coby White talks about teammates Nassir Little and Cameron Johnson not playing their best due to sickness and the impact seniors Kenny Williams and Luke Maye had on him this season.

North Carolina’s Luke Maye lay near halfcourt on the NCAA’s logo, and from his stomach watched helplessly as Auburn’s Bryce Brown took the ball down the floor and dunked it.

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Auburn’s Bryce Brown (2) hangs on the rim in celebration after a dunk to ice the Tigers’ victory over North Carolina in the NCAA Sweet 16 matchup on Friday, March 29, 2019 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Auburn rolled to a 97-80 victory. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

North Carolina was going to lose Friday and there was nothing the senior forward could do to stop it. Kenny Williams, with tears in eyes and a towel draped over his head, stood at the end of bench and looked in disbelief.

Williams and Maye’s careers at North Carolina, which were among the most successful four years in program history, were coming to an end. Their dreams of a second NCAA title in four years vanished.

Auburn was just too good. The Tigers led by as many as 21 points in the second half, and for the second time in two years the Tar Heels were going home early after a 97-80 defeat.

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North Carolina’s Kenny Williams (24) hangs his head after being taken out of the game in the final minutes of play as Auburn rolled to a 97-80 victory on Friday, March 29, 2019 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Last year, the Tar Heels lost in the second round. This year, the Sweet 16 of the Midwest Region.

The 97 points the Tar Heels allowed were the most points they allowed all season. The Tigers hit 17 3-pointers, the most 3’s a North Carolina team has allowed with Roy Williams as the coach. The Tigers also shot 54.5 percent from the floor for the game.

Auburn beat North Carolina at its own game — on fast breaks, points in the paint, and for one half, on the boards. Auburn had 19 points off turnovers. North Carolina had six. Auburn had 15 fastbreak points. North Carolina had six.

North Carolina and Auburn both had 34 points in the paint, a stat North Carolina usually dominates.

“Everybody controls their own destiny in the tournament, and they outplayed us today,“ North Carolina sophomore Sterling Manley said. “They just wanted it more.”

There was silence in the locker room after the game with the exception of the clicks from cameras and the questions from reporters. Manley and freshman Leaky Black, who sat side by side at their lockers, both buried their heads in their hands and stared at the floor.

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North Carolina’s Sterling Manley (21) and Leaky Black (1) sit dejected in the Tar Heels’ locker room following their 97-80 loss to Auburn in the Sweet 16 on Friday, March 29, 2019 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Missouri. Robert Willett rwillett@newsobserver.com

Junior guard Brandon Robinson sat in a chair in the middle of the locker room and stared into space.

“It hit me, but it really hasn’t hit me yet that it’s over,” Robinson said. “From day one, I told people this team was going to be special. People laughed at me, people looked at me like I was crazy. We didn’t have the ending that we wanted to and it sucks.”

The memories and experiences they shared together were coming to an end. As a group, they will no longer play together. Outside the locker room, Houston’s players yelled as they passed by, preparing for their game against Kentucky.

Meanwhile, Maye, Kenny Williams and Roy Williams sat at the podium and answered questions from reporters about the loss. They struggled to put into words their experiences from the past four years.

“I don’t know, man,” Kenny Williams said. “It’s all the times off the court that you remember the most. Bus rides, plane rides, meetings.”

“Some days were good, some days were bad, but I mean we were all family and we all love being with each other, and it made practice fun each day,” Maye added.

Watch North Carolina coach Roy Williams' opening comments in his press conference following the Tar Heels' Sweet 16 loss to the Auburn Tigers Friday night March 29, 2019.

Roy Williams was emotional. The coach put the blame on himself and said he didn’t prepare his team as well as Auburn’s Bruce Pearl had. But he said he loved his team.

“When I think of Luke Maye and Kenny Williams and Cam — only had Cam for two years, but man, that’s what every coach should love to have,” Roy Williams said. “It was tough for us today.”

Johnson, who scored 15 points Friday, came down with a fever the night before the game, and Williams said he could not join the seniors at the podium because he was throwing up. Freshman Nassir Little had “flu-like symptoms” earlier in the week. He said he was hooked up to an IV for two hours on Thursday and was unable to eat.

Still, the Tar Heels had a game to play, and Auburn proved to the the better team.

Auburn will advance to the Elite 8 to face No. 2-seeded Kentucky on Sunday for a chance at a Final Four.

The same spot the Tar Heels dreamed they would be in.

UNC's Roy Williams talks about his team's display of sportsmanship following the injury to Auburn's Chuma Okeke and what Williams told Auburn coach Bruce Pearl and the end of the game.

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