Redemption: North Carolina creates new ending to familiar championship path
GLENDALE, Ariz. — The pregame meal for the North Carolina basketball team takes place at the same time, every time: precisely four hours before that day’s scheduled tipoff. The spread itself is also identical no matter where the Tar Heels are or what time of day they are dining: green beans, broccoli, mashed potato, sweet potato, baked potato, chicken, salmon, steak, pasta with marinara sauce, a fruit cup and rolls on the table. And, likewise, after eating the same food at the same appointed time before all of the games they play, Theo Pinson and Joel Berry II fall into a routine of their own: They return to their hotel room and they take naps.
Nothing about Monday afternoon at the Palomar Hotel was any different than any other game day. And it was yet another bit of sameness that overcame Pinson, a junior forward, once he snapped out of his snooze and prepared to board a 4:15 p.m. bus to a hulking stadium in the desert: North Carolina, for the second straight April, would play for a national championship. This is unreal that we get a second chance at this, Pinson told Berry II. Not a lot of people can say they can do that.
Only eight teams, in fact, had followed a title game appearance with another one just a year later. It’s unlikely any of them endured the sort of torment that befell the Tar Heels on April 4, 2016, when a buzzer-beating Villanova three-pointer dashed their aspirations in as painful a way as is conceivable.
North Carolina players insisted they tried not to think about it. They tried to separate themselves from it. But, especially during the three-week trip through the NCAA tournament bracket, they would be yanked back by everyone who couldn’t or wouldn’t let go so easily.
And so, on another Monday in April, this was the realization for the team that did everything the same, from the food to the naps to running out on a raised floor to play on the same final night of the season: The only way to escape it all was by doing one thing different.
“You just didn’t want to come up short,” Theo Pinson said.
The 71–65 victory over Gonzaga that brought North Carolina its national championship was a close game but not, in fact, a particularly good game. A barge-load of fouls and missed shots and missed calls dulled the sheen of two very good basketball teams convening to compete for a trophy.
But then the Tar Heels are a team that thrives on imperfection; they are collectively the best offensive rebounders in the country, for example, and offensive rebounds are necessarily preceded by missed shots. So this is a program in some ways built to endure in a game besieged by error. This is a program that has played through the specter of an NCAA investigation into academic fraud and, in the end, screamed and hugged and danced while confetti fell at University of Phoenix Stadium anyway. North Carolina is somewhat expert at a nice cleanup after the mess. “The feeling of inadequacy in the locker room last year is the worst feeling I've ever had,” coach Roy Williams said. “But, yes, this one's fantastic. And it's sweet.”
To the dismay of the many who expected better, there was nothing glorious about what transpired between the Tar Heels and the Bulldogs on Monday. The teams shot a combined 34.8% from the floor. They committed a combined 44 fouls and missed a combined 20 free throws. A great swell of howling about terrible officiating overwhelmed the action on the floor, but it’s just as necessary to note the generally sloppy level of play and the generally obvious proliferation of bad defense that merited the many foul calls. That the teams nevertheless were locked in a tie game with two minutes left saved everyone from racing to forget the affair the second it ended.
At halftime, facing a three-point deficit and with matters drifting toward rock-fight levels already, Williams stood before his team in the locker room and declared that they were locked, for better or increasingly worse, in a “man’s game.” And the coach that has refused to review the film of that 2016 championship game loss—“I probably never will watch the game,” Williams noted—then referenced one of the worst nights in the life of everyone in the room. The Tar Heels coach reminded his team that they led Villanova by five at the break. And that Villanova came out as the aggressors after intermission to seize control. And that, perhaps, North Carolina might do well to take a cue from this.
The 8–0 run that followed directly after halftime ensured nothing about the end result. But it did reconfirm that the Tar Heels were still themselves. They could still pick up after a mess. “We really kind of hit them in the mouth,” junior forward Justin Jackson said.
All along, North Carolina protested (perhaps too much) that redemption was not precisely the motivation behind their pursuit. And then it became the leitmotif of a championship anyway.
Berry II spent the entire Final Four delivering updates on not one but two sprained ankles—it was big news when he said he was able to walk comfortably Sunday morning despite tripping over a video game controller in his hotel room—and missed 12 of the 14 shots he took in the semifinal victory over Oregon. The junior then poured in 22 points and six assists on Monday and accounted for the only four three-point shots North Carolina made, earning Most Outstanding Player honors for the effort. As his teammates thrashed about searching for a rhythm, Berry II steadied them long enough to stand a chance at the end. “My trainers were coming up to me constantly: Are you okay? Are you okay?” Berry II said. “We need to come down and do rehab. Take this up to your room. Do that. Do that. And I just kept on telling myself: Look, just a couple more weeks. Just give it your all.”
Isaiah Hicks might have been the only person to have it worse, and he had no physical malady to blame besides bad aim. Of the 6’9” senior’s first 15 shots in the Final Four, 14 did not connect. “I felt like I was always trying,” Hicks said. “I feel like, when you try, a good thing is eventually going to happen.”
Hicks kept trying, but he was a liability deep into the second half Monday. Then he became an indelible part of program lore. With essentially every member of the team’s massive frontlines in foul trouble, Hicks surged to score eight of his 13 points and grab six of his nine rebounds in the second half. Improbably, he would hit the most consequential shot of the game: After a missed Berry II jumper and a controversial jump ball that allowed North Carolina to maintain possession—the Tar Heels’ Kennedy Meeks had his hand on the out-of-bounds line during a tie-up on the floor, but an official standing in the vicinity missed it—Hicks received the ball near the free-throw line and barreled his way to a bank shot runner with 25.4 seconds left that provided North Carolina a 68–65 lead.
No sequence encapsulated the night or the Tar Heels’ route to victory better: a missed shot, an offensive rebound, a blown call, and then deliverance from a player who couldn’t deliver much of anything for most of the weekend. No wonder Williams walked behind Hicks as the team gathered to watch the “One Shining Moment” montage and then dropped the remains of the scissored net around the senior forward’s neck, or that Hicks toted the championship trophy around the locker room as the celebration carried on. “My boy has been struggling like a dog,” Williams said, “but tonight he looked like a greyhound there a couple of times at the end.”
Nothing was certain, truly, until Meeks blocked a shot and Berry II heaved a pass to a streaking Jackson for a run-out dunk with 7.3 seconds left. The team’s lithe leading scorer swung around the rim for a moment, then let go to punctuate the evening by clenching his fists and letting loose a cathartic roar. Jackson considered a leap to the NBA after his sophomore season but returned for a couple reasons: The pros wanted him to demonstrate a more consistent touch, and he felt North Carolina was equipped to return to the Final Four. He insisted the loss to Villanova did not specifically factor in that decision. He declared he stopped thinking about the game five months ago, discussing it only when asked to.
Even late Monday night, Jackson maintained this wasn’t a redemptive moment. Totally different team, he said. But there was the ACC Player of the Year, running down the floor and throwing down the dunk to seal a championship that so agonizingly eluded him one year earlier. And even with those seven-plus seconds left on the clock—and goodness knows North Carolina players should understand the value of time left on a clock in a championship game—Jackson began to cry. “I couldn’t control it,” he said. “It made it a little sweeter, going through what we did last year.”
On the day of the national semifinal game against Oregon, Jackson reread the story of David and Goliath. A North Carolina player drawing inspiration from an underdog seems a bit absurd. But overcoming great challenges wasn’t what Jackson got from the tale. For him, it was a reminder about being steadfast and the great things that can follow as a result.
North Carolina’s mascot, Ramses, stood on the raised floor at University of Phoenix Stadium and surveyed the giddy fans a few feet away. He caught sight of one in particular and pointed at him. Kris Jenkins smiled, flashed a thumbs-up and then waited as Ramses descended to the floor and came in for a hug.
It was Jenkins, of course, who released the shot that splashed through last April, creating an epic NCAA tournament moment for Villanova and a waking nightmare for the Tar Heels. On Monday night, he sat in the front row behind the North Carolina bench. He was there to support his brother, Tar Heels guard Nate Britt; the Britt family took legal guardianship of Jenkins during his high school years. And now he wore a shirt with BRITT and the number 0 on the back, literally embracing the same players whose dreams he ground to dust a year earlier (“He knew how much it hurt,” Britt said). Jenkins smiled because, as it turned out, he only delayed their moment of triumph instead of destroying it. “This has nothing to do with me,” Jenkins said. “This is all about them and what they accomplished as a team.”
North Carolina reached another Monday night in early April and changed the ending. Whether that qualifies as redemption is a matter of semantics. There is no denying that it is different, however, and that is all this team desired. They wanted something different for themselves, not whoever they were the year before.
Those Tar Heels, as a matter of fact, were due for deletion. Since last April, the screenshot of Pinson’s phone is a photo of him sitting in the locker room of Houston’s Reliant Stadium with his head bowed. “Now I can change the screensaver on my phone,” he said after the game. He and everyone else on the roster had been reminded by players who won championships at North Carolina that there was a spot at the table waiting for them. Just pull up a chair, they said.
They didn’t manage it a year ago. But amid the chaotic and delirious scene in the desert, Pinson found Sean May, the team’s director of player development and a member of North Carolina’s 2005 title-winning squad. Clean my chair off and have it ready for me, Pinson joked to May.
When Pinson returned to the locker room following a news conference late Monday, there was nowhere for him to sit. He looked to his right. After a moment, May stood up and brought over the folding chair he had been occupying. That seat was ready at last.