The cliche with basketball is that in the key moments of the greatest games, time slows. It's baked into the sport, from movies like Hoosiers to the treacle of the One Shining Moment montages. The thing is, in all the great basketball games I've encountered, in everything from my best pick-up games to some of the dominating Carolina championship victories, that's not the case. They go by fast. Ridiculously fast.
That's what struck me about the first half of tonight's game — how fast it went. UNC, playing without Kendall Marshall, without Dexter Strickland or Leslie McDonald, with John Henson already playing injured before a high ankle sprain early in the game, with the ball in the hands of alternatively Stilman White and Justin Watts, played fast. And with everyone worried they'd be run out of the building, they matched Kansas point-for-point, making twelve of their first fourteen shots. And the guys scoring weren't the ones you'd think.
The first bucket of the game went to Stilman White. The Heels first three-pointer came courtesy of Justin Watts. James Michael McAdoo had ten quick points from the moment he first set foot on the court (after the Henson injury) until he was allowed a break at the ten–minute mark. Against most teams, this would be the start of a rout, but Kansas was equally on fire. It set a pattern for the entire game, where Kansas would build a lead of around seven points, and then UNC would come raging back and take the lead. Thomas Robinson and Tyler Zeller were both playing strong on offense, Kansas's roe players were getting buckets, and Tyshawn Taylor was putting up points every time he ventured inside the arc.
Keep in mind, this wasn't bad defense by either team. Kansas and UNC were the 4th and 9th most efficient defenses in the country. This was just two offenses playing their opponents just right, hitting anything and everything. UNC shot 64% from the field that had; Kansas 56%. It was absolutely glorious to watch.
Most importantly, towards the end of the half, Harrison Barnes appeared. Not the Harrison Barnes we'd seen this tournament, but the one talked about in hushed whispers. Who got started with two consecutive dunks, one in the face of a Jeff Withey block, and the other on a lob pass from White. His eight points that half came in a 14-7 run to end the half. The period ended as UNC's second–best shooting performance in a half this year. And to see this team, having had so much go wrong for them this season, play at this level made this whole year worthwhile.
Then came the second half. The defenses had time to adjust, but the pace and back-and-forth remained the same. The Jayhawks jumped out to a seven point lead, and UNC would claw back to go back on top 61-60. Kansas rattled off some buckets to go up 66-61, and UNC would come back again, to trail by one 68-67. That was the score at the final TV timeout, and that was as close as the Tar Heels would get. Reggie Bullock would pass the ball into the hands of Tyshawn Taylor, and the resulting three put KU up by four. The next possession all the contact in the word couldn't get John Henson the whistle he wanted, and Withey's block led to another three-point play. Forced to shoot threes when they had no touch — Carolina was 2 of 17 from three, the worst Tar Heel performance in tournament history — nothing fell, and a star–crossed team ended their season in front of a hostile crowd in St. Louis.
Taken as a whole, with UNC's first half 64% shooting married to their 23% in the second half, I'm still happy with the performance. Carolina lost the battle on the boards, in part because Kansas hit on the idea of driving on the slower Tar Heel guards and pulling UNC's bigs into help defense. And yes, Barnes was again absent for most of the second half, making his last shot with seventeen minutes left in the game. Postgame quotes seem to have him being very critical of his own 13-point performance, as Reggie Bullock (5 points) and Stilman White (a respectable 4 points, 7 assists, and no turnovers) were of theirs. They shouldn't take it so hard. The team played very well against tremendous odds.
Tyler Zeller finished his career with a 12-point, 6-rebound, 4-block performance. Justin Watts bows out with only five points and two steals, but served as the spark plug of UNC's first run of the game, and finishes a career in Chapel Hill the had him playing every position but center. Stilman White will leave for a two–year Mormon mission with two tournament starts with nary a turnover between them.
As for everyone else, that's a story for another day. The speculation of who's going and staying can wait. This was a great team subjected to a bad season, and I'm more than happy to enjoy what they accomplished for a little while.