The improbable end of Monday night’s unforgettable national-title game is easy to place in history. It was the first buzzer-beater to win a national title since Lorenzo Charles dunked Dereck Whittenburg’s miss in 1983, the Triangle falling on the wrong side of this one.
Kris Jenkins’ shot to deliver the title for Villanova will, as several North Carolina players ruefully noted afterward, be replayed for the rest of their lives – when it easily could have been Marcus Paige’s improbable 3-pointer to tie being replayed instead.
Assessing this North Carolina team’s place in history is a little tougher. Because these Tar Heels didn’t win a national title, there’s no way to put them in the same group as those five NCAA champions whose banners hang in the Smith Center.
But this team also has a couple banners of its own to hang, from the Final Four and an ACC championship and regular-season title to Brice Johnson and Paige joining their predecessors among North Carolina’s honored players.
And it also, despite falling short in the final 4.7 seconds of the season, brought North Carolina back to the Final Four for the first time since 2009 and restored the program to its traditional standards after an exceptional drought that coincided with a dark time as the scandal hung overhead.
“We earned certainly a level of respect that we didn’t have before in our program, and it’s such a great program, one of the two or three best in the country,” Paige said. “You can’t dispute that. You have to get to this level in order to be considered and to be remembered.
“There’s a whole lot of guys that have done better than us, if you think about it, and it’s hard to say now because we were so close to being at the top. But hanging a Final Four banner in that gym will be something I’m proud of for the rest of my life.”
It’s also a group that set a new tone for North Carolina basketball, something largely overlooked in the justifiable lament as Paige and Johnson and Joel James depart. While Johnson was this team’s muscle and Paige its heart, several underclassmen played essential, critical roles for this team – and without any likely lottery picks in the group, all are likely to return next season.
Joel Berry emerged as a scoring threat and leader by example with his toughness. Justin Jackson still hasn’t come close to his ceiling. Kennedy Meeks has much more to offer. Isaiah Hicks needs to grow, but he has the athletic, explosive potential to fill Johnson’s spot. Nate Britt and Theo Pinson both filled valuable roles that will expand next season. And three top-100 recruits are set to arrive as well.
With Duke reloading with one of the top two recruiting classes in the country, it’s entirely possible either North Carolina or Duke or both could be in position to play for a national title 51 weeks from now.
All of that may offer reason for optimism down the road, but it doesn’t take away any of the pain from Monday night.
“We had our ups and downs this season, and we really wanted to get this one for each other,” Britt said. “The guys that aren’t seniors really wanted to get it for the seniors, and the seniors really wanted to get it for coach (Roy) Williams and his staff. So this hurts.”
It will for a while. The Tar Heels are going to be losing this game over and over again for years, and there’s nothing they can do about it now. They can take solace in their accomplishment, even if it didn’t include a national title – putting North Carolina basketball back on the right track, leaving a foundation behind for the future.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock