North Carolina lost the National Championship in heartbreaking fashion Monday night.
The Tar Heels were defeated by Villanova, 77-74. Carolina overcame a late double-digit deficit, but was defeated by a basket at the buzzer. Thousands of fans watched in the Dean Dome.
Five weeks earlier, following a win on Senior Night in the Dean Dome, three basketball heroes were humbled. Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige and Roy Williams each fought back tears, voices cracking as they addressed several thousand adoring fans. Coach Williams called this his favorite team, ever.
"It’s been the most fun, with frustrations, the most fun I’ve ever had because you have suffered right there with me in some tough times. Even when I got frustrated – I got to come out and coach you. Thank you very much," Williams said to the crowd, back in February.
For Tar Heel nation, it has been a challenging few years. There is the continuing fallout from a scandal that began before the current seniors were even born. In 2015, iconic coach Dean Smith passed away. And on the court, Carolina fell into its longest Final Four drought in a generation. That night five weeks ago was about saying goodbye. As it turns out though, the Chapel Hill fans got another Dean Dome performance.
Several thousand jersey-wearing, face-painted, fist-pumping Tar Heel fanatics were fixated on five jumbo screens Monday night. UNC and Villanova were playing for the National Championship, half way across the country, in Texas. The fans who couldn’t get there didn’t seem too upset - roaring with every three point make, sitting anxiously after each Villanova basket.
Carolina led by five at halftime, before Villanova got hot. UNC missed 11 of its first 14 shots in the second half and they trailed by ten points with five and a half minutes to play. Johnson and Paige led a comeback though, and Carolina trailed by three, with 13.4 seconds remaining.
"Berry bounces to Pagie … attempt for a steal … Paige launching a deep three. It rolls home. Paige’s prayer is answered from 30 feet! He rains it home," Kevin Kugler had that call on the Westwood One Radio Network. The game was tied on an incredible shot by Paige. Villanova had the ball with four-point-seven seconds remaining, and a championship hanging in the balance.
"Here we go, Jenkins will trigger. Four point nine seconds to go. Ryan to Jenkins, for the win. It’s good! It’s good," Kugler called.
Kris Jenkins made a shot that will go down as one of the greatest in the history of the sport – a buzzer-beating three pointer to win a National Championship. The energy in the Dean Dome was instantly crushed as stunned fans stood with hands on their heads. Some crumpled to the floor. A few began crying.
"This was bad," said Martha Lineberger, who sat as the crowd departed. She was in school during the 1982 National Championship and drove up with her husband Monday, to watch the game near her children.
"I wanted them to experience what I got to experience when I was here. I really did. And that is why I came up tonight," she added. Her son Evan and daughter Claire are juniors at Carolina.
"With Villanova you could tell this one is going in, this one isn’t," Claire said. "This didn’t happen, this is an April Fools joke. Like just late."
Claire said the experience, other than the final few seconds, was amazing – a chance to cheer on this team one last time. This team gave its fans a memorable run, stringing together 10 straight wins as the season reached its finale.
In Houston, Carolina players spoke about the defeat.
"This is the most fun I've ever had in my entire life - with this team. All the way up until that last horn went off. It's hard, 'cause at some point tonight I have to take this jersey off, and I never get to put it back on," said senior Marcus Paige, fighting back tears.
Carolina claimed the regular season title, the ACC Tournament Championship and we’re carried by Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige to the final possession of the season. There, this talented team came up four point seven seconds short of their ultimate goal.