If you’ve gone to school at the University of North Carolina, you’re used to making history. Improbable feats and successes, aren’t the things of legend around here – it’s daily life. Your professor likely won a Nobel, a classmate could be going to the Olympics, and records are constantly being broken by the same people you sit next to on the bus. It’s a saying that playing at Carolina is an honor and winning is a tradition. After all, when your alumni includes the greatest to ever play the game – the Jumpman himself – it’s mighty hard not to brag. Our entitlement is as much a result of hard-earned achievement as it is privilege, and when you put five Carolina blue uniforms on a court, there’s virtually nothing we can’t do.
Monday night gave us the kind of thrills and chills that films are made of. Everyone has probably watched at least one sports movie in their life and they all follow more or less the same story-line: an underdog team has an ambitious goal, they overcome struggles and challenges, they face an arch rival, endure a painful loss, head into the biggest stage in their sport with a mountain of fans and shaky confidence, and finally – right when they’re about to get knocked down – they win it all.
This basketball team felt very much like one of those movies: ranked number 1 in the nation heading into the season, with a self-declared goal of a 6th national title. With a senior class regarded as one of the most talented in the country, the world was watching us. Then our starting point guard was injured in practice, missing the start of the season that included a game back in his home state of Iowa. Scrambling to keep momentum players like Joel Berry and Brice Johnson quickly rose to the occasion despite 2 non-conference losses that “shouldn’t” have happened. The world doubted. The team’s heart, focus, toughness, and future were questioned. Marcus Paige returned but his game was missing. The New Year arrived and two dropped away games showed that Paige was still in a slump. A one-point heartbreaker to Duke at home sent the fanbase reeling with anger and calling for Roy’s retirement. It was a few games later that they would endure their last loss (to UVA) before the tides changed. Marcus got his game back. Berry was leading the team he’d held up during Paige’s slump. Brice was shattering records and backboards. The ACC tournament came and went propelling us to a No. 1 seed we used to dominate our quadrant of the NCAA bracket. We won every game easily – by at least 14 points – and set ourselves up for a showdown with the only squad in the country that had barreled through the bracket with equal poise, vigor and dominance: Villanova.
It was a game set up to be one for the ages: a powerhouse program with multiple titles against a solid basketball program often overlooked in the headlines with a single 30+ year-old title to its name. #1 versus #2. Worlds apart, but whose teams’ caliber were essentially two sides of the same coin. It was to be a fight to the finish, and that it was. The two scrapped like a pair of brothers (hint hint Nate Britt and Kris Jenkins), alternating shots without any real leads. A short run put NC up by 5 at the half, a lead Nova quickly erased and turned into a 10 point lead of their own midway through the second half. The refs were not kind: they called fouls when jerseys were barely touched, they called fouls on us for simply breathing. The Smith Center grew quiet during these moments, worried that the title our team had fought so hard for all year long was slipping away. There’s a single space just to the right of our National Championship banners – right where the 2016 hardware would hang. It was most definitely ours, we just had to win.
Our guys knew that. They did the impossible, the unbelievable. They erased that deficit, they made the stops and shots necessary to pull within 3. And then Marcus Paige did what everyone knew he could do – he made the dramatic, improbable shot that happens in all those famed sports movies. The one that will go up on our walls and in the basketball museum and in those Carolina basketball highlight reels. He tied the game, with 4.7 to go.
This was the moment we’d been waiting for. This proved everything. We had fought through a cloud of doubt, scandal and criticism to reach this final moment. The score was 74-74. It was perfect – it was the movie we’d been headlining all season long. We had met our match, we knew what it was like to play ourselves. Nova was everything we thought they were and now, 4.7 seconds from an overtime we surely knew we would win, the score said it all: These are the two best teams in the country. They can shoot from the perimeter, they can make big plays, they can dominate the paint. They are one and the same. But who will be better tonight? Can Nova prove they’re the best shooters in NRG Stadium? Can NC prove they know how to defend the 3?
The crowd went wild in the Dean Dome, fans filling the court to watch the the final moments of a game we’ve waited years for. And just like that – it was over. The little brother won. With a shot from Kris Jenkins so eerily similar to that 2012 Rivers shot we do not speak of, the buzzer sounded at the end of regulation and there was nothing we could do.
I’ve thought a lot about this game in the past 48 hours, with tears, laughter, and the whole nine yards. This was truly the perfect game – we just fell on the wrong end. People wonder what’s it’s like to be a Tar Heel and the best way to describe it is loyalty. To The Carolina Way. To Dean and Roy. To the names hanging in athletic immortality in the rafters. To each other. It’s pulling your kids out of school to welcome home the team because families don’t give up on each other – ever. True love is putting your heart out on the line. Whenever I go to a game and hear thousands of people chanting Tar Heels, I’m honored and humbled. High-fiving and hugging people I don’t know makes me believe in this community that openly welcomes anyone wearing the right shade of blue. Sports give me hope. They epitomize how beautifully painful and triumphant life is all at once. You’re not a stranger when you come here – you’re a Heel, and that makes you family.
Chapel Hill is magical because of the people and places that inhabit it, and all of them are temporary. Nothing is ever the same when you return: a business has closed, a new table has been added to a restaurant, a whole class of people have moved on. The essential part of being a Tar Heel in any capacity is being transient – never in the same place too long, yet our spirits linger here like a fine fragrance. You don’t stay in Chapel Hill, but you never leave either. So I know what’s happening inside those guys as they cope with this loss; know that we are all coping, every day we think about the bell, and well, and those sunny afternoons in Thrill City. Marcus, Brice and Joel contributed much more than trophies and statistics. They left us dunks, and jumpers, sportsmanship and memories as fellow students. They earned that title in all 100 practices, in all four years, in every play. And in a month they will have earned their degrees too.
Thank you team, for showing the world exactly what being a Tar Heel looks and feels like. In the end, this game was a metaphor for something that 300,000 of us know all too well. We were not defeated. We were not cheated. It’s just, nothing in life ends perfectly. Life is not a movie. We were warriors in blue. And we live to tell the tale.