Tyler Zeller sits on the bench during a timeout in the first half of the game against the Kentucky Wildcats.
I thought by this point I had pretty much understood how Carolina losses go. The team falls behind early, with an excess of turnovers and too many badly conceived perimeter shots. There are wholesale substitutions, and lots of yelling from the coach. Then they come back, but are never quite able to make it happen. Cue the postgame interview where Roy Williams complains that the team was outhustled. And scene.
And if you only did a cursory scan of this game, you might think the same thing happened here. After all, UNC did fall behind, last leading when the score was 4-2, and there were nine turnovers in the first half. But the Heels didn't pull one of their disappearing acts, and didn't take poor shots. Instead, the Wildcats really focused on denying Tyler Zeller the ball, and John Henson spent 17 minutes on the bench in foul trouble, with three in the first half and his fourth early in the second. Couple that with some great three-point shooting from Kentucky every time UNC got close – they would go 12-22 from the line, and shoot better from behind the arc than inside it – and that was all she wrote.
Not that UNC didn't put together a great second half though. After heading into the locker room down eight and losing Henson to foul trouble early in the second, Tyler Zeller and especially Dexter Strickland took over. Zeller would finish with 21 points and nine rebounds despite bearing the brunt of Kentucky's defensive efforts, but it was Strickland who was the true revelation. He scored 11 points (9 in the second half) but really excelled with his defense, nabbing three steals and making a hash of the Wildcats ability to move the ball. With Harrison Barnes on the bench for a stretch, it was Strickland who began to close the gap, right when you thought things would fall apart. Suddenly a 47-36 deficit was within seven, and with Barnes and Henson returning Carolina finally found a rhythm. Yet every time the lead was cut to four, Kentucky found an answer, usually from behind the arc. It was only at the 5:25 mark that Barnes got the steal that kicked off a 10-2 scoring run to tie the game.
UNC would eventually find themselves with the ball and a one-point deficit with 1:25 to play; having scored on five of their last six possessions, the plan was to find Zeller or Barnes again. But neither was open, and Kendall Marshall saw the open path to the basket. His layup was blocked from behind by DeAndre Liggins in the play of the game. Kentucky would recover, and Liggins, who had started the game in a lineup change, would get a three of his own to seal the game. Carolina never scored again, while Kentucky would use free throws to extend its lead. And thus ends one of the most uplifting seasons of Tar Heel basketball in a decade.
From here, there's not much to do. No blame can be cast, not if you're truly honest. This is a team that tremendously overachieved considering their level of play in January, and yet left you feeling they were destined for better things than an Elite Eight loss. They were the highest seed remaining when the lost, and they acquitted themselves much better in the tournament than many teams above them. Now we can just say goodbye to Justin Knox, and wait to hear word on the fates of Zeller, Henson, and Barnes, all of whom have the opportunity to go pro. It was a great season that ended a little too soon, I'm afraid. It's enough to make you want to punch a wall.