After Tyler Zeller walked off the Edward Jones Dome court last Sunday, still stunned by his team’s 80-67 loss to Kansas in the NCAA Midwest Region final, it was hard to put into perspective what this North Carolina team’s legacy might be.
“We did win 30-plus games,” the senior 7-footer said. “I mean, hopefully it’s a good [legacy]. We had a lot of great players, we just came up a little short.”
UNC didn’t meet its goals of reaching the Final Four, of winning the NCAA championship. And with the loss of Zeller (who is graduating), plus fellow starters John Henson, Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall (who announced Thursday they are entering the NBA draft early), this team leaves on a bittersweet note.
For some, it will always be the season of ‘What if?’ -- as in: What if Leslie McDonald, Dexter Strickland and Marshall had not been injured and in street clothes for that final game? What if Barnes had been able to make a few more shots? What if the Tar Heels hadn’t panicked in those final four minutes against the Jayhawks?
For others, it will be a season of unfulfilled promise -- a team chock full of NBA first-rounders that just couldn’t get it done.
And for still others, it will be remembered as a season of perseverance -- a group of players that came back from big losses and tough injuries, until they just couldn’t anymore.
For all, there will be memories -- some the players, coaching staff and fans will want to hold on to, some they might want to forget.
In that vein, here are 10 standout moments/happenings that shaped the season (in chronological order):
THE CARRIER CLASSIC: The final score (67-55 over Michigan State by the way) wasn’t what really mattered in the opening game.
Staged on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson, under the San Diego sunset, the game was about honoring the nation’s servicemen on Veteran’s Day, saying thank-you in the form of shots and dunks and camo-colored jerseys. All in front of President Barack Obama on 11-11-11.
After the final buzzer, the players stripped off those jerseys -- which also featured “USA” instead of their individual names -- and gave them to the Wounded Warriors sitting courtside.
"Hopefully I'll be coaching another 10 or 15 years,” coach Roy Williams said afterward, “but I think it's going to be hard to top this."
PANIC AND FREEZE: In 2010-11, UNC had been a team that thrived in late-game-situations. So when they panicked against UNLV in the second half on Nov. 26 -- allowing the Rebels a 14-0 run from which the Tar Heels never recovered -- then froze in the final five seconds at Kentucky about a week later -- inexplicably failing to call timeout after Henson’s shot was blocked with five seconds left -- it was a perplexing reminder that this team had some growing to do.
The UNLV loss pushed the Tar Heels out of No. 1 in the rankings, a spot to which they never re-climbed. The loss to Kentucky gave the Wildcats the bragging rights … and a bunch of folks hoped there would be a re-match in the Final Four. That will become another one of those ‘what-ifs,’ especially if UK wins the national title.
NINE-GAME HOME WINNING STREAK: Yawn.
Williams wanted to play Texas on the road instead of at the Smith Center, wanted some sort of test between Dec. 6 and Jan. 10. Instead, the Tar Heels got a nine-game home winning streak against the likes of Evansville, Nicholls and even ACC freshman-laden foe Boston College. It padded their record, but also their egos -- and set up the embarrassment that came next.
33 POINTS: UNC’s 90-57 loss at Florida State was so lopsided, so humiliating, that Williams ended up taking his team off the court early -- leaving three walk-ons and two freshmen to play it out and deal with the rushing crowd (the coach later said he didn’t mean to abandon the quintet).
Many analysts, and some fans, wrote the Tar Heels off during that Jan. 14 game, questioning their heart, their desire, their toughness. Until the end of the season (maybe even now), UNC kept the number '33' written on a board in the locker room, a reminder (and motivator) of what happens when you think it’s going to be easy, when you don’t play with focus and drive.
“That was the most embarrassing thing I’ve ever done in my life, because it was to the point where I never thought I’d leave a game early because we’d lost by that much, and they were going to storm the floor,’’ Zeller said in the days after loss. “And it was just something I hope to never experience again.”
LOSING DEX: What’s worse than playing in the most lopsided loss of the Roy Williams era? Losing a starter just three days later. It happened in the second half at Virginia Tech, when Strickland was driving toward the bucket and ended up on the baseline, screaming in pain.
UNC’s starting shooting guard/backup point guard/best perimeter defender was diagnosed with a torn ligament in his knee, and he became the second perimeter player sidelined, joining McDonald (out since the beginning of the season) on the bench in street clothes.
Sophomore Reggie Bullock filled in admirably at shooting guard, increasing his defensive focus while also burying shots. But from the beginning, Williams predicted that backup ball handler would be where Strickland was missed the most. And in the end, he was.
ZELLER BOUNCES BACK: Scribbled on the sidewalk outside the Smith Center prior to the Feb. 11 win against Virginia was a simple message: “Believe in Zeller.” Perhaps more importantly that game, the big guy believed in himself.
Just three days after a nightmarish loss to Duke -- during which Zeller missed two free throws, accidentally tipped in a Blue Devils shot, and was the defender on freshman Austin Rivers’ game-winning 3-pointer in the closing minutes -- the senior came back to record 25 points and nine rebounds against the Cavaliers. When he left the game for good, it was to a standing ovation.
“Z’s fine,’’ Henson said after the game. And Zeller was more than fine. That performance was the beginning of Zeller’s push to ACC Player of the Year honors.
REVENGE AT DUKE: This was the UNC team everyone had expected to see from the beginning of the season. Angered by the video board replay of Rivers’ game-winning shot at the Smith Center, the Tar Heels rushed to a 22-5 lead in the opening eight minutes of the March 3 re-match at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and ended up winning, easily, by 18.
This time, there was no hope for any comeback -- except for the Tar Heels, in the minds of those who had written them off.
“One thing that we talked about is people are going to put you on a pedestal to knock you down,’’ Marshall said after the game. “That’s what happens. We weren’t going to be perfect unless we went out and won every game by 30. That’s not what happened … we learned from our mistakes, we continued to get better. And now it’s all starting to come together.”
MARSHALL VS. NCSU: One dimensional? Bah.
The point guard proved he could do more than pass when he posted a career-high 22 points with 13 assists at NC State in late February. In the ACC tournament semifinals he took it another step: scoring when it mattered the most.
With 10.2 seconds left, on March 10, Marshall buried a bank shot -- making contact with Wolfpack guard Alex Johnson, who wanted a charge called. Senior Justin Watts sealed the win for his team (which was playing without the injured Henson) with a steal.
But the NBA scouts had to be impressed with Marshall's points, especially since had already set the ACC record for assists in a season during his first conference tournament game. Later, when pondering his NBA choice, Marshall had to know it, too.
STILMAN WHO? He should have been more scared. Later, he even admitted it. Instead, starting his first-ever college game -- and in the NCAA Sweet 16, to boot -- freshman point guard Stilman White was calm. Even a little confident.
With Marshall sitting on the bench in street clothes, his fractured right wrist in a brace, White recorded six assists and zero turnovers in the Tar Heels’ overtime win against Ohio. It was the stuff those of cheesy made-for-TV movies. Only it was true. And it resonated.
“It was one of the great stories in North Carolina basketball,’’ Williams said of White, who finished with 13 assists and zero turnovers in two NCAA starts.
THE PAINFUL DECISION: Williams admits he got his hopes up the day after the Ohio win, when Marshall was able to practice a bit to see if he could possibly play in the Midwest Regional final against Kansas. “We got him to run up the court, pass and catch and dribble. Being a one-armed player, he was still pretty good,’’ Williams said.
The coach thought his starting ball handler might just be able to contribute in his specially-fitted brace … until Marshall walked into a meeting room Sunday morning, and it was too painful to pass, dribble and shoot.
Without him -- and with Bullock playing in a knee sleeve, Henson competing on a newly sprained ankle, and Barnes struggling to hit shots -- the Tar Heels panicked, then collapsed in the closing minutes to the Jayhawks, falling short of their Final Four goals.
In the locker room, there were tears and ice bags and laments for the moments that were. And the ones that might have been.
“You can talk about talent, talent, talent … but it was off the charts, what this team had to face,” Williams said. “And I’m really proud of our team.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.