For some, the awakening came in Hawaii. For others, after a tough two-game stretch of the ACC season. For still more, only after vanquishing Duke to close the regular season.
North Carolina has been talking about getting back to the Final Four for 51 ½ weeks, but there was never any guarantee the Tar Heels would make it this far. Without Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, with Theo Pinson injured to start the season and Kenny Williams to end it, getting another shot a national title was anything but assured – and, at times, even seemed unlikely.
North Carolina’s path to this point, facing Oregon in Saturday’s second semifinal, has been anything but a straight line, even if it looks that way from far away. There was always a core confidence, even leaving Houston, that North Carolina could get back to the Final Four, and they thought that in October and they thought that last Sunday morning in Memphis.
But for each player, there was also a moment where he looked around and said, as Nate Britt put it, “We’re really good. We can do this thing again.” There were almost as many of those moments as there are players. The Tar Heels would come to believe they were capable of this, but not all of them on the same timetable.
The first milestone, for many, was in Hawaii. The Tar Heels had some ups and downs to start the season, but stormed through the Maui Invitational, beating Chaminade, Oklahoma State and Wisconsin by a combined 91 points, winning as much with defense as offense. At that moment, Britt and Isaiah Hicks joined the believers.
“At that moment, I realized, we can talk all we want but this is really possible,” Hicks said. “Coach always tells us we’re good enough to be in the Final Four. With the combination of all that, that’s when it really set in.”
Then there was a difficult weekend in the middle of the ACC season, when North Carolina had to play Florida State at home on a Saturday, then Syracuse on a Monday – the kind of scheduling hardship that led Roy Williams to complain that the ACC treated coaches like mushrooms, kept in the dark and covered in manure.
But that weekend also replicated the challenges the Tar Heels would face in the NCAA tournament, a quick two-day turnaround from an athletic, man-defense team to a more finesse zone team. (Mushrooms do tend to thrive under those conditions.) When they handled that, easily, Theo Pinson joined the believers.
“I was like, I honestly don’t think any other team could do that,” Pinson said. “It’s hard to go one day and then play Syracuse. … That’s when I knew, we got a special team.”
On the last day of the regular season in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels defeated Duke, the preseason No. 1 team, and one that had already beaten them in Durham. To defeat such a talented opponent at such a critical juncture, Luke Maye joined the believers.
“It felt like it kind of propelled us over the hump,” Maye said. “Even though we lost to them in the (ACC) tournament, we knew we could beat them and we had the players to do it, and it leapfrogged us forward to where we are now.”
By the time the Tar Heels avenged their Las Vegas loss to Kentucky, coming back from five points down in the final five minutes to defeat the Wildcats and advance to Phoenix, faith was no longer required. Their return to the Final Four had become fact.
They had come, separately and on their own timelines, to the same conclusion: That this team had a chance to do what its predecessor had done, that the redemption they sought was not only a realistic goal but almost within reach. And then it was.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock