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What a difference a year makes!
On the first Monday in April of 2016, I jumped off my couch and was instantly reminded my left knee wasn’t healthy enough for that even though Marcus Paige made one of the biggest shots I’ve seen in the Men’s NCAA Tournament by a North Carolina player.
After a Facebook post of “Paige!”, liking a few similar posts and sending a few text messages, I nervously sat back down and eventually said to myself just minutes later “that shot is good” with a slight smile despite disbelief and disappointment. (Since I consider myself a pretty good shooter but nowhere near an elite level of play, I just know when a shooter steps into a shot like that it has a great chance of going in.)
No need to question whether Kris Jenkins’ shot was good.
Game time! Villanova 77. UNC 74.
Before this title game loss, Carolina was undefeated in championship games during my lifetime. I was too young to know what was going on when the Tar Heels lost to Indiana in 1981 and redeemed themselves a year later thanks to Michael Jordan’s jumper and James Worthy’s steal (really he was just in the right place at the right time) against Georgetown.
After Duke made sure UNLV wasn’t going to repeat in 1991 and Michigan couldn’t stop Duke from repeating a year later, my team was finally the best in college basketball again even though as a teenager I felt for Chris Webber and the Fab Five.
Twelve Final Fours later, the title drought finally ended with a pretty dominant performance versus Illinois. Then after four years, which included an embarrassing loss to Kansas in the national semifinal, the Tar Heels extended their championship game success by definitely dominating Michigan State.
Prior to last season’s stunning loss, I remember saying “since I’ve been watching Carolina, we don’t lose in the championship” like Michael Jordan’s Bulls and Tim Duncan’s Spurs before Ray Allen had Heat fans regretting leaving Game 6 a little too early. (Gregg Popovich! Duncan probably grabs that rebound instead of Chris Bosh if he wasn’t on the sideline with you.)
But from one big shot to another, Jenkins’ 3-pointer was probably the biggest I’ve seen in college basketball because it sealed the title for Villanova, its first since 1985, and turned Paige’s double-clutch 3 into just a moment of adversity someone would voice over on a Villanova basketball greatest moments video. It’s no point in UNC fans reliving Paige’s last shot for the program because we will never forget what happened minutes and specifically 4.7 seconds later.
However, one positive to draw from this crushing defeat was the fact that most of the crew was coming back except Paige and Brice Johnson (Jenkins was your man.) with redemption (the act of redeeming or atoning for a fault or mistake) as their motivation. Without an exceptional one-and-done freshman replacing the aforementioned players, the Tar Heels lost just four ACC games and finished first in the conference this past season.
After the second loss of the season to Duke (I’m never cool with losing to those bustas.), the pressure to perform in March was back, and I was expecting at least an Elite Eight appearance.
As expected, easy work was made of Texas Southern but a little controversy played a role in getting us past Arkansas. Then we convincingly sent Butler home to set up a rematch with Kentucky, which beat us by three earlier in the season. Malik Monk, who touched us up for 47 points in December, wasn’t done making big shots in this matchup especially when he drilled the game-tying 3 with 7.3 seconds to go.
But coach Roy Williams’ philosophy of pushing the ball quickly back up the court without calling a timeout paid huge dividends and turned March 26, 2017 into Maye Day. Theo Pinson took the inbounds pass and made his way to the elbow before finding not Justin Jackson or Joel Berry but Luke Maye on the wing for the game-winning J with 0.3 seconds left.
Game! Tar Heels back in the Final Four with Oregon up next.
In the final seconds against the Ducks, free-throw shooting became a challenge but Pinson and Kennedy Meeks prevented Oregon from gaining possession and attempting a last-second heave for a miraculous comeback. (Did Oregon forget we were one of the best offensive rebounding teams all season?)
Now it’s April 3, the final day of the 2016-17 season, and Gonzaga stands between us redeeming ourselves or becoming the Buffalo Bills of college basketball according to Duke fans.
My knee is good but the shooting percentages of both teams and the officiating were not. But Berry (22 points, six assists and the Most Outstanding Player award) was reliable like he was a year ago, netting all four of the Tar Heels’ 3s. However in the clutch this time, it was the collective effort by Jackson, Hicks and Meeks, whose hustle led to Hicks’ basket then a block of his own which resulted in Jackson stretching the lead and making it okay to celebrate a little early.
Carolina 71. Gonzaga 65. The Tar Heels are the 2017 champs!
Back on top for the sixth time – the fourth I proudly celebrated live.
With redemption in the rear view, now it’s time to hope Roy gets closer to Coach K in the ring department sooner than later.
Well, until the next celebration, peace CAROLINA fans.