It was late February, with senior night approaching, when North Carolina coach Roy Williams considered a question about the legacy of this particular group of seniors and how they’d be remembered.
Williams said then that it had been “pretty admirable” what Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and Joel James had accomplished up until that point, given the negativity that had often swirled around the program in recent years, but Williams went no further.
“Ask me that question after the season’s over with,” he said then, “and I’ll tell you.”
Since that day in late February, the Tar Heels won the ACC regular season championship with a stirring 76-72 victory at Duke on March 5 and won the ACC tournament championship with a tense 61-57 victory against Virginia on March 12.
Then, UNC won its first five games of the NCAA tournament – and in the process reached its 19th Final Four and the national title game. The Tar Heels’ 77-74 loss on Monday night against Villanova in the championship game will long be remembered for how it ended.
UNC senior Marcus Paige hit a 3-pointer to tie it with 4.7 seconds remaining. Villanova junior Kris Jenkins’ then nailed a long 3-pointer to win it as time expired. It was, arguably, the greatest national championship game in history – one that added another layer to the question Williams pondered in late February, the one about legacy.
This UNC team won’t be remembered as one of the most dominant teams in school history. It won’t be remembered as one of the most talented. It could well be remembered as one of the most beloved UNC teams, though, and for several reasons.
For one, the ending. UNC didn’t just lose on Monday night, but it lost in perhaps the most agonizing way any team has ever lost in a national championship game: on a buzzer-beater that came seconds after Paige’s dramatic game-tying shot, which had the Tar Heels riding an emotional high.
I’d rather get beaten by 30. I don’t like losing that way, especially in a game like that. I’d rather them beat us the way they did Oklahoma, to be honest with you. I’d rather them just beat the crap out of us.
The ending was so sudden and swift. Jenkins unleashed his shot. The horn sounded. The shot went in. Fireworks went off. Confetti fell. Steamers covered the court. All of it happened in a span of seconds, with the Tar Heels still comprehending what, exactly, had just happened.
“I’d rather get beaten by 30,” Johnson, the UNC All-American forward, said afterward. “I don’t like losing that way, especially in a game like that. I’d rather them beat us the way they did Oklahoma, to be honest with you. I’d rather them just beat the crap out of us.”
And so the way UNC lost, amid the kind of heartbreak that players found difficult to articulate, will be part of this team’s legacy. But so will a lot that came before: the ACC regular season and tournament championships, and the 75-70 senior night victory against Syracuse and the small moments that Williams might remember, especially.
Building on turning points
Williams often described coaching this particular team as something of a salvation. He described Paige and Johnson, the two players perhaps most responsible for UNC’s success, as “a savior to me.”
“The best legacy, I’ve said this to several people in my life, is that when somebody mentions their name, if you smile,” Williams said. “And so when somebody mentions Marcus’ name, I smile, and it’s a warm spot for his personality and his toughness and who he is.
“When people mention Brice’s name, I smile and it’s because of how wacko he is and how silly he is. But also how far he’s come with his game.”
In some ways Johnson’s development and growth personified that of the team overall. During his first three years, Johnson’s talent was rarely in question. He could at times dazzle Williams, and others, with glimpses of offensive potential that seemed limitless.
It was just everything else that held Johnson back: defense. Effort. Hustle. Toughness.
He discovered those attributes during his senior season and became UNC’s first consensus All-American since Tyler Hansbrough. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Tar Heels, too, found the toughness and intensity they’d so often lacked.
When people mention Brice’s name, I smile and it’s because of how wacko he is and how silly he is. But also how far he’s come with his game.
Roy Williams on Brice Johnson
For years Williams had bemoaned his team’s lack of toughness. He did, again, at times earlier this season – especially after a 80-76 defeat at Notre Dame in early February, when UNC allowed a 15-point first-half lead to slip away.
Said Williams, after that game: “I’ve got to do a heck of a lot better job of getting my club to play with a lot more intensity than we did … I’ve got a wonderful bunch of kids, but we’ve got to decide that we want to compete when it’s tough, not just when it’s easy.”
It took a while for the lesson to sink in. Later that month, the Tar Heels (33-7) endured their most painful defeat of the regular season, when Duke rallied from an eight-point deficit with less than seven minutes to play to stun UNC 74-73 at the Smith Center.
Williams after that game received no shortage of criticism, including about his decision not to call a timeout in the final seconds, with his players appearing confused and out of sync on their final offensive possession. And for UNC’s failure to work the ball inside to Johnson, who faded in that game after a brilliant start.
Later, after his team’s 88-74 victory against Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament East regional championship game, Williams looked back at the loss to Duke as a turning point – a loss that provided important, long-lasting lessons. He described the Feb. 27 79-74 defeat at Virginia the same way.
After that game, Williams hosted perhaps the most valuable film review session of the season. There, flashing in front of his players on a screen, Williams found ample proof of what happens when a team pays attention to the little things: setting a precise screen, finding perfect defensive positioning.
The details cost UNC during its loss at Virginia. And then succeeding in those areas allowed the Tar Heels to thrive during the final month of the season and, ultimately, reach the Final Four.
There wasn’t one turning point as much as there were several moments that built upon each other. The Feb. 29 senior night victory against Syracuse was important, because it provided the Tar Heels with a proper home send-off for Paige, Johnson and James. Then came the March 5 victory at Duke.
And the one March 10 against Pittsburgh in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. UNC trailed a few minutes before halftime but closed the first half on a 10-0 run, one fueled by six consecutive defensive stops.
The last of those came on Joel Berry’s steal near midcourt. Moments later he scored on a layup that punctuated the Tar Heels’ defensive arrival. They were a different defensive team – a more intense defensive team – the rest of the season.
On March 12, two days after that victory against Pitt, the Tar Heels cut down the nets in Washington, D.C., where they had won the ACC tournament for the first time since 2008.
And two weeks after that, on March 27, they cut down the nets again, this time after the East regional championship win over Notre Dame in Philadelphia. UNC was headed back to the Final Four for the first time since 2009.
In six years between Final Four appearances, Williams and his program had endured no shortage of challenges, some of which are still ongoing. There were the injuries that derailed what might have been another Final Four run in 2012.
The off-court drama that surrounded P.J. Hairston in 2014. Then, the uncertainty that has come with an NCAA investigation into a long-running scheme of African Studies paper classes.
No one knows, ultimately, how the investigation will affect Williams’ program. A resolution might not arrive before next season begins. The cloud could linger, then, for a long time to come.
More than once during his team’s time in the Final Four in Houston, Williams shared his appreciation for this particular group of players. Coaching them, Williams said, had provided an escape amid the turmoil in his life, one that went beyond the NCAA investigation.
Some very difficult time periods. With people questioning me and my integrity and the credibility of our program and everything.
Williams during the past 18 months had also endured the deaths of several people close to him: Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge and Ted Seagroves, Williams’ longtime neighbor and friend. And yes, Williams acknowledged, there was everything else, too.
“Some very difficult time periods,” he said on April 3, the day before the national championship game, “With people questioning me and my integrity and the credibility of our program and everything.”
A victory last Monday night against Villanova wouldn’t have erased those questions. It wouldn’t have brought an end to the NCAA investigation. It wouldn’t have healed the emotional wounds that Williams, and others, still suffer about a year after the deaths of Smith and Guthridge.
A national championship would have been cathartic, though. And now Williams and his players are left to take solace in the journey itself.
“This has been a great year,” Berry, the sophomore point guard, said after the defeat against Villanova. “I wouldn’t trade anything for it. We had our ups and downs. For us to get to this spot, I know we wanted to win it. But for us to even get here, it took a lot of hard work, it took a lot of growing.”
And then it was over.
Months of practices and team meetings and games, of building to the point where the Tar Heels found themselves on Monday night – with the score tied in the final seconds of the national championship game – and then it was over by the time Jenkins’ shot reached its destination.
“We got a taste of a lot of success this year,” Paige said, sitting inside a quiet UNC locker room on Monday night. “And once you get that, you don’t want anything else but that. You just want to keep getting it and keep winning and earning more accolades and catapulting yourself up.
“And Sean (May) talked about, and Bobby – Bobby Frasor – talked about getting a seat at the table at Carolina. There’s only five seats at that table, with ’57, ’82, ’93, 2005, 2009. And we had a chair pulled all the way up to the table and we just couldn’t quite get there.”