There is only so many times you can put yourself in that position and expect to come out on top.
Of all the regional finals I can remember UNC losing, this might be as calmly as I have taken a loss. Part of that was the nagging feeling I had for two days that, for some reason, UNC would not win. The other part of it is, given the season long view of this team, it is difficult to get to worked up over a team that was fun to watch and make chicken salad out of you know what more times than I can count. After the 4-3 November and then the loss by 20 points at Georgia Tech, for this team to have the ball down one with a little over a minutes left staring at a trip to the Final Four is really something to behold. Now onto the game.
This game really came down to three things.
1. Kentucky shot lights out from three. Lights. Out. The Wildcats were 12-22 from beyond the arc which was a solid 15% higher than their season average. What was more frustrating was I did not necessarily think UNC screwed the pooch too badly on perimeter defense. Some of those shots that went it were well defended. Some of them were not but part of the gamble in the way UNC plays defense is hoping a team won't do what Kentucky did. The other problem was the timing of the threes which always seem to come when UNC was preparing to climb over the hump. After Tyler Zeller tied the game on a pair of free throws, Brandon Knight hit a three with Dexter Strickland's hand in his face. After UNC failed to take the lead at 70-69 it was another three that basically sealed the deal. Sometimes the defense on the perimeter is really bad and sometimes teams just hit shots. I think this was more about Kentucky hitting shots than it was UNC necessarily screwing themselves. However, UNC's long history of seeing an opposing team drop bombs over and over makes this one a tougher one to swallow.
2. John Henson's foul trouble. You cannot take the ACC Defensive Player of the Game and a guy who had 118 blocks out of the game for huge chunks and it not matter. Not that Henson would have helped on threes but not having him around to collect defensive and offensive rebounds hurt. UNC's offense is helped a great deal by offensive rebounds and putbacks. Not having Henson hurt that cause and his presence on the defensive end matters even if the other team is chucking threes. Henson did not record a single blocked shot and failed to overtake Brendan Haywood for the single season record. If I told you before the game Henson would have zero blocks, four points and nine rebounds you would have probably surmised that UNC would be screwed. You would have been right.
3. The offense has never been and was not consistent enough to stave of a big shooting performance from Kentucky. UNC has won many games this season by getting just enough offense while the defense keep the other team in check. In this case the defense could not do that which meant UNC needed more offensive production to overcome what the Wildcats were doing. They simply did not get it. The TO% was not horrid overall but in the first half made life difficult. UNC was 3-16 from three with Harrison Barnes going 2-9, Marshall 1-5 and Leslie McDonald 0-2. That basically left the Heels riding Zeller who had 21 points, nine rebounds and four block as well as Dexter Strickland who finally figured out his niche on the offensive end which was to shoot jumpers at a reasonable range, drive to the basket and play defense. Strickland 11 points and was a huge factor in UNC tying the game up late. Marshall on the other hand did have eight assists but was 2-10 from the floor and committed three turnovers. Much like the game at Duke, Marshall could not finish in the lane. Had he played like he did versus Duke in Chapel Hill we are having a very different discussion right now. Those are the breaks with this team however. They were barely a top 40 offense according to Ken Pomeroy and prone to be inconsistent. Sooner or later that comes back to bite you.
There are some things we can certainly gripe about. Roy Williams probably could have used a timeout with UNC in possession and down by one. I would have like to have seen either Barnes or Zeller take the shot so taking the time to draw a play up for them may have been beneficial. That being said, Marshall got a nice look at the rim that was thwarted by a nice defensive play. Sometimes it is not meant to be. UNC had some holes which were difficult to cover sometimes. I think the availability of a healthy Reggie Bullock may have made a huge difference in this game by giving UNC another shooter and allowing the Heels to put a bigger lineup on the floor when Henson went out with foul trouble. Player injury, foul trouble at the wrong time and poor shooting in general happens. UNC had played so many games like this and found a way, I guess they went to that well once too often.
Regardless, hats off to these Tar Heels. They were fun to watch grow up and winning an ACC regular season title with a 14-2 record is nothing to sneeze at. In fact if anyone wants to stack UNC's season versus Duke's, I will take UNC's every day of the week and twice on Sunday. The only thing that might bug me is UNC would have had a legitimate shot at winning the national title in Houston. I am not saying they would have been a lock but had it been UNC with UConn, VCU and Butler, it is a complete toss-up. Maybe they still don't win it but it would have been fun to see these guys on the big stage. Now we turn to our annual vigil awaiting a decision on the NBA Draft prospects of Henson, Barnes and Zeller. If they all come back, then this season is the 2007 to next year's 2008. If not, well let's not think about that right now.
So thanks Tar Heels for the season. For 29 wins, some of them in breathtaking fashion and for restoring the name NORTH CAROLINA to a place of honor in college basketball.