Tar Heels fall short of dream ending, national championship

HOUSTON -- No driveway, blacktop or gym that has ever had a kid playing basketball and counting down before launching a final, game-winning shot ever had a kid dream of getting beaten by one.

That’s the reality North Carolina faced after its 77-74 loss to Villanova on Monday in the national championship game. The Tar Heels had a tough time processing being on the short end of a classic finish.

“It hits you as soon as the basket is made, and you see those red lights go off, and you’re on the losing end of it,” sophomore forward Justin Jackson said. “Just like you can’t describe the feeling of winning, you can’t really describe the hurt that you feel when you lose a game like that.”

Senior guard Marcus Paige said the only thing going through most of the players’ minds was what could have been done differently at any given moment of the game. For Paige, it was something as simple as making his first free throw or clogging the lane to prevent a backdoor cut by Mikal Bridges.

For Jackson, it was the sequence at the end of the first half. He said he should have powered up on the left side of the basket, instead of attempting a layup with his right hand that was blocked and led to a Villanova basket. For Isaiah Hicks, it was picking Kris Jenkins up earlier so he didn’t get a clean look to launch his game-winning shot.

“The difference between winning and losing in college basketball is so small,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “The difference in your feelings is so large. But that’s the NCAA tournament. That’s college basketball.”

What hurt the team as much as losing was not joining the list of program immortals. These players wanted very badly to engrave 2016 in an exclusive Carolina roundtable, after Williams had former players Sean May and Bobby Frasor from his two national title teams address the players about their experiences in the Final Four and championship game. They talked about “getting a seat at the [championship] table.”

“There’s only five seats at that table: [1957], ’82, ’93, [2005] and ’09,” Paige said of Carolina’s five NCAA championships. “We had a chair pulled all the way up to that table, and we just couldn’t quite get there. It’s something that will probably haunt me for the rest of my life.”

Senior forward Brice Johnson, who had 14 points and eight rebounds, found little consolation in reaching the Tar Heels' first Final Four since the team won it all in 2009.

“At the end of the day, you still want to be at the table with the greats and say that you won a national championship,” Johnson said. “That was the whole purpose of being here. We didn’t want to come here for nothing less. That’s what we wanted.”

The Tar Heels did more than join the list of the four other teams in program history (1946, 1968, 1977, 1981) that finished national runners-up.

This was a team that endured three seasons of an investigation into fraudulent classes that took place well before any of the current players enrolled, an investigation that served as a proverbial cloud hovering over their accomplishments. These Tar Heels were forced to grow up quickly in 2013-14, when former teammate P.J. Hairston missed the entire season for receiving impermissible benefits.

They watched Paige be clutch, as he had done throughout his Tar Heels career, one last time against Villanova, and they watched Johnson progress from a player with potential to one who fulfilled it.

“Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige were just great examples of what you want college basketball players to be,” Villanova coach Jay Wright said. “They played with class, won with class and lost tonight with class. We have great respect and admiration for them.”

Both players earned their respective ways into the Dean E. Smith Center’s rows of honored jerseys. Although they didn’t realize their ultimate dream of winning the national title, they still can take a seat among the program’s most revered teams for getting UNC back to an elite level.

“You have to get to this level to be remembered, and there’s not a whole lot of guys who have done better than us, if you think about it,” Paige said. “And it’s hard to say now, because we were so close to being at the top of the mountain, but hanging a Final Four banner in that gym is something I’m going to be proud of for the rest of my life.”