The extent of my UNC basketball memory is roughly 25 years. It begins with a Tar Heel championship win over Georgetown and runs until a loss over that same team today. Based on these long 25 years I am confident in saying that this is the worst collapse I have ever watched a UNC team produce. When you consider the stage the game was being played on, the stakes and the nagging fact that UNC was in control with a double digit lead only to lose not only the lead but the game, it tops my list as one of the worst tournament losses I can remember. It was surreal watching it unfold and you kept waiting for UNC to get control of the game back, to push the lead back to two possessions and it never happened.
Where did it all go wrong? With 9:56 to go in the game Deon Thompson, who had a sensational game, tipped in a missed Brandan Wright jumper to give UNC an eight point lead at 73-65. Over the next nearly 15 minutes of game play the Heels would only hit two shots from the floor and six free throws. UNC was 2 for 23 from the floor during the final minutes of the game. Some of that is good defense by Georgetown, some of that is poor shot selection and on some level that is just a clear case of a victory that was not meant to be. The shots just stopped falling pure and simple. However, in the bigger picture of what was happening for the Heels offensively, it was also a matter of failing to do the things which had worked for the first 30 minutes. UNC executed their offensive game plan so well up to that point which included a heavy dose of Tyler Hansbrough which also created a lot of foul trouble for Georgetown. With about six minutes to go, UNC veered away from the offensive game plan. Maybe the Hoya zone proved to be confusing for the young Heels but at that point UNC started in on a steady diet of three pointers which came too early in the shot clock and provided zero chance for an offensive rebound. Now on one side of that is the absolute certainty that had any one of those threes gone down it could very well been a dagger in the Hoyas’ season and I am presently talking about UNC heading to the Final Four. Since they did not and since UNC seemed to be engaged in milking the clock while not really taking time off the clock it left the door ajar. From there Georgetown strung together some big shots, seized the momentum, and that was it.
It is painful mainly because the season is a long cycle which seemingly takes forever to unfold and when you are on the verge of a Final Four you want very much to seize upon it. It is painful because unlike some other UNC season ending losses I never felt like the Heels played that badly. Actually I thought they were doing all the right things and the score was reflective of that until that ice cold stretch snatched a Final Four berth from the boys in blue and left Tar Heel Nation with nothing but questions. Such is the way of college basketball and pulling so hard for a team playing in a single elimination tournament.
I am fond of a saying my mother used to quote from her grandfather and that is “What ever will be, will be.” And when you consider that in the past 25 years there have been only two teams to win three national titles, Duke and UNC, you understand that doing so is a rare event. Having your season end at some point in the NCAA Tournament is more of the rule rather than the exception. And by no means does it make it a easier but given it will be eight months before we see the Heels on the court again it would be nice to have them playing as long as possible.
Then again to use the line from that Jimmy Ruffin song my father used to quote when UNC went down, “I’ve passed this way before…”