For the third post of my series about heartbreak and elation surrounding my favorite sports teams, I drop from the professional level where I wrote about both the Washington Redskins and Washington Capitals and cover the men's basketball team at the University of North Carolina.
I will be honest, I didn't attend UNC nor do I have any family members that ever went there, but as most stories go, it was all about a girl. Heading into sixth grade the only college team that I was really aware of was Georgetown University. My uncle had gone there and they were the most prominent local team at the time. The Big East Conference was at its peak in the mid to late 1980's so therefore Hoya Paranoia was all I knew. That was until I met Mary as a budding romantic at the age of 11. She and her southern twang infatuated me at the time and she became my first 'girlfriend' if you can call it that. She had moved up from North Carolina and was from a UNC family. Her parents went there and eventually both her and her older sister wound up going to Chapel Hill for college. Although our middle school fling didn't last, she instilled in me a love for UNC and that is what has stuck almost 25 years later.
I really started following North Carolina basketball around 1992. My first taste of sadness was watching that team lose to Jimmy Jackson and Ohio St. in the NCAA tournament. My emotions swung to the other end of the spectrum just a year later, but we'll get to that in a bit.
When you're North Carolina, you have the highest of high expectations. Championship or bust is how each season is graded. To say that is unfair is incorrect. As a fan you always want your team to be championship worthy season in and season out. Fans of North Carolina should feel blessed that over the last 40+ years they have been a true contender to win a championship at least 30 times. Of course it makes for far more heartbreak than it does elation because they are always expected to win by the fan base. Always. There is no room for rebuilding, there is no excuse for not cutting down the nets, there is the ultimate pressure to win every time the team steps on the court. I must admit, I'd much rather have it that way then the alternative (yeah I'm looking at you Clemson!).
Picking out my favorite moments as a fan was not overly difficult, but as it was said in one of my favorite movies of all time, Rounders: "Few players recall big pots they have won, strange as it seems, but every player can remember with remarkable accuracy the outstanding tough beats of his career." That is how I feel with North Carolina, when you go into every game expecting a win, it is very difficult to look back and pick out the games that made you scream in joy. The ones that left you staring at a wall for hours in disbelief were easy to remember and that sucks. North Carolina has brought me far too much joy than I deserve as a fan and that is what I want to remember.
TOP 10 MOMENTS OF ELATION AS A NORTH CAROLINA FAN
2009 - January 28th at Florida St. (Ty Lawson Buzzer Beater)
2008 - ACC Tournament vs. Virginia Tech (Tyler Hansbrough Buzzer Beater)
2000 - NCAA Tournament vs. Stanford (#8 Seed UNC upends #1 Seed Stanford)
10. 1998 - February 5th vs. Duke
We'll start with my favorite team to never win a championship (more on that later). At the time of this game UNC was #2 in the country and hosted #1 Duke. I was at JMU and the game was not being aired on the channel lineup provided by the campus. I borrowed a car and drove to a sports bar (one that I could get into under 21 years of age) to watch it on a blurry satellite feed. There was no chance I was missing this game. UNC roared out of the gate behind Vince Carter, Antawn Jamison and Ed Cota. They hung half a hundred on Duke in the first half. It was easily one of the best halves of basketball I had ever witnessed. Duke attempted a run in the second half, even getting to within four points, but UNC had just too much fire power on that night. Everything went their way. Even on an attempted off the backboard alley-oop that was flubbed it turned out to be a wide open three point basket. UNC went on to win by 24 and take the top spot in the nation at 23-1.
9. 2011 - ACC Tournament vs. Miami
The 2010-11 version of North Carolina was one of those pleasant surprise teams that are few and far between. Midway through an uneven, frustrating season, Roy Williams made a decision that would change the course of the team for the next year and a half. He inserted freshman point guard Kendall Marshall into the starting lineup with a record of 12-5 and the team responded going 12-1 the rest of the regular season. In the ACC Tournament UNC drew Miami and all of the positive strides that had been made were seemed to have been lost over the first 30 minutes of play. With 9:55 remaining UNC trailed by 19 points and I was off the charts angry. I was stuck at work, but took my lunch during the 2nd half and went to the gym for a quick workout. Thank heavens the gym was empty because as North Carolina started their improbable comeback, I was allowed to vocally urge them on at the top of my lungs. Carolina rained in three point shot after three point shot and outscored Miami 27-6 the rest of the way. I'll never forget the defensive pose that Roy Williams struck on Miami's final possession that turned into a turnover. He exudes calmness for most games, but when he gets fired up, there is no other coach in the nation that shows the same level of passion. UNC had the ball, tied at 59 with just under 6 seconds remaining as Marshall drove to the basket, dished it off to Tyler Zeller who quickly laid it in to win at the buzzer.
8. 1995 - February 2 at Duke
One of the, if not the most memorable games between UNC and Duke in my lifetime and it happened to be played smack dab in the middle of my high school years where the pressure for UNC to win was ten fold. I caught more flack from fellow students and teachers (yes teachers!) when UNC lost than anything else. My Math and English teachers were UVA fans and would always let me know about losses. I had friends who were fans of UCLA, Florida St., Kentucky, Maryland and Michigan. It was a veritable mine field making it through a day at school without getting into an argument about college basketball. Going into the game at Duke in 1995, North Carolina was a heavy favorite as Duke was without Coach K (back surgery) and going through a terrible season currently 0-7 in the ACC. UNC was 16-1, 6-1 in the ACC and #2 in the country. This was to be a rout. Up 17 in the first half, the game played out as expected, until the aura of Cameron Indoor Stadium spearheaded a vicious comeback as not only did Duke catch UNC, but led by 12 points in the second half. I was beside myself and thinking up ways to convince my mother to let me stay home from school on Friday. Then UNC rallied to force overtime. In the extra frame they dominated scoring the first nine points over 3:30 minutes. Then Duke rallied with and 14-5 run including a near half court shot by Jeff Capel. In fact they were down eight with :21 left. I couldn't stomach it. The second overtime was similar to the first in the fact that UNC scored the only three points for both teams in the first 3:30 minutes, then Duke tied it at 98. Donald Williams hit a tough fade away and while viewers focused on him, Jerry Stackhouse stole the inbound pass for a layup and UNC finally had enough to put Duke away finishing with a 102-100 victory. My elation was masked in the form of utter relief, but any list covering UNC has to include this gut check of a game.
7. 2008 - Season Series vs. Clemson January 6/February 10
As the ACC schedule started for UNC in 2008 they stood undefeated at 14-0 and ranked #1 in the country. They really hadn't been tested to date, but down at Clemson, they got all they could handle and then some. The two teams played a snug first half going back and forth, but it was Clemson that had the better of the play in the second half, stretching out to a 7 point lead with less than 3 minutes to play. Back to back threes got UNC close and eventually they pushed it to overtime. In the extra session, Clemson clung to a one point lead as UNC set up their final play with 5.4 seconds left. Wayne Ellington got the pass from Ty Lawson and drained a 3 point shot to win the game and finished with a game high 36 points. Fast forward 35 days later and had dropped all the way to #3 in the country and stood 21-2 on the season. Clemson headed to Chapel Hill where they have never won...ever. It's the 'You can't win here!' game that the fans try and chant before being quieted by an embarrassed Roy Williams. In 2008 UNC stood 52-0 at home against Clemson. This year that almost ended. The Tigers scored the first 8 points of the game and never slowed down. At halftime it was an 11 point Tar Heel deficit. With 11 minutes to go it had ballooned to 15. Clemson was going to get its revenge. UNC scrapped and clawed, but still trailed by 9 with under three minutes to play. Then it happened, the magic that always appears with Clemson in town overtook the Tigers and UNC poured it on outscoring Clemson 12-3 the rest of the way to force overtime. It wasn't settled there as Quentin Thomas hit two clutch free throws to force a second overtime. What more did Clemson need to do? Apparently much more as Tyler Hansbrough scored seven of the thirteen Tar Heel points in double overtime and UNC won again for 53 in a row 103-93. Both games were magnificent and it is what I miss most about getting to play both home and away every year against every ACC team, but that's for another post.
6. 2006 - March 4 at Duke
Senior night for Duke. Senior night for Sheldon Williams and J.J. Redick. Duke was #1 in the country and this was the biggest night for them in a generation. I had traveled down to Charlotte, NC on vacation and when game time closed in I settled in to a local sports bar to watch the game surrounded by a bunch of Tar Heel fans so we could commiserate on what I expected to be a bad night. Coming off of a championship season this new batch of Tar Heels that were led by freshman Tyler Hansbrough and the team had completely exceeded all expectations. After narrowly losing to Duke in Chapel Hill, UNC had reeled off six straight victories and were ranked 15th in the country, but this was the moment Duke fans had waited four years for. No chance Duke would fall on senior night for two of their most beloved players ever. Along with Hansbrough, fellow freshman Danny Green, Bobby Frasor and Marcus Ginyard spoiled the party. The four freshman scored 55 of UNC's 83 points while J.J. Redick cooled off completely after a torrid start (4-5) to shoot just 5-21 from the field...that's 1 for his last 16 if you're keeping track at home. The game was nip and tuck until UNC pulled ahead in the second half and Duke could never get back even. Being a true underdog made this game ultra special for me. Not only did I get to celebrate among fellow UNC fans, but to ruin the party that had built up all season long for Duke was amazing.
5. 2009 - NCAA Tournament vs. Michigan St.
Three years later it was North Carolina with the senior laden lineup looking to do what the '06 Duke team failed to accomplish. Tyler Hansbrough had become the leading scorer in the ACC (passing J.J. Redick) and his mission was to win a National Championship. The entire season was billed as Hansbrough's coronation and nothing less than winning a championship would be acceptable. Starting the season ranked #1, UNC never fell below #5 and entered the NCAA Tournament as the favorite to win the whole thing. They made quick work of their first five opponents winning each game by double digits and not really being tested once. I remember that I didn't get to watch an entire tournament game until the Elite 8 because UNC was always winning by too many points and CBS switched to another game. They faced Michigan St. in the National Championship game, a team they had beaten by 35 points earlier in the season. Whatever doubt I had by tip off was quickly extinguished as UNC dominated the Spartans from the opening tip. The Tar Heels scored 55 first half points and led by 21 at the break. As the championship became a reality, North Carolina allowed Michigan St. to creep with 13 points with five minutes remaining but finished the game out in style winning 89-72. This season was all about winning one for the senior class that came out of nowhere their freshman year to surprise the fan base and stuck together in true college fashion to complete the ultimate goal.
4. 2005 - March 6 vs Duke
I rank this game as my favorite, most joy inducing regular season game in my history as a fan of the Tar Heels for various reasons. At this point in time North Carolina had not won a National Championship in a dozen years. In fact they had not even made the Sweet 16 since 2000. The Matt Doherty years were painful and fan confidence was at an all time low. 2005 looked like a real chance to contend, and UNC had played great all season, but had still lost to Duke a month earlier. Now at the end of the season when emotions should be building towards the tournament, UNC was dealing with the absence of their enigmatic star Rashad McCants for the regular season finale against Duke in Chapel Hill. Having missed the previous three games with an intestinal illness, nobody knew whether he was going to come back that season. The mystique that came with wearing the powder blue and playing in the Dean Dome seemed to have disappeared. Senior day versus Duke looked to be more of the same with UNC not being able to overcome adversity. The game was close throughout until Duke took control with 5 minutes remaining. They went on a 9-0 run as UNC was forced to call a timeout with exactly 3 minutes remaining. Three minutes to decide whether this group of players could shake the recent demons and hopefully make a run into April. This is what happened:
Not only did North Carolina finally beat Duke (lost 4 in a row; 10 of 11), but they saw the emergence of the beast in the middle in Sean May, freshman Marvin Williams showed a glimpse of what he could do and they solidified their case as a #1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament. This game turned the tide for the entire program and it took three minutes to do so.
3. 1995 - NCAA Tournament vs. Kentucky
Let me introduce you to my friend Erin. I met her in 8th grade (1992) and she was a die hard fan of the University of Kentucky. My admiration for UNC grew because of the trash talking we did throughout the next five years until graduation. By 1995 I held the strong upper hand with the championship in 1993. The two teams had not played since 1990, but as fate had it, they were lined up to play each other in the Elite 8 of the 1995 tournament. When the brackets were announced, all Erin and I did was salivate over the possibilities of playing each other with the season on the line. When each team won in the Sweet Sixteen on Thursday of that week, we had one day in school to prepare our vocal ammunition. The entire school day on Friday was spent bad mouthing each other's favorite team. This game meant more to me than any other game I had watched in my four years in following the team. There was no way I was going to be able to walk back into school on Monday morning if UNC had lost that game. Everybody said UNC was not going to be able to handle the full court pressure that Kentucky could apply. They had no such issue. UNC led at the half, expanded the lead in the 2nd half and was never really threatened. I remember distinctly screaming 'We're going to Seattle, we're going to Seattle.' She didn't say a word to me for a month.
2. 1993 - NCAA Tournament vs. Michigan
This was the first full season that I had paid attention to North Carolina as a fan. By the time the tournament rolled around I had my game day outfit solidified and for the tournament itself I created a pregame dance that I did in the confines of my room. We will never speak of that dance. Carolina cruised through the first weekend, survived the second weekend and were head to New Orleans for the Final Four. I was headed to my grandparents house in Florida (ensemble in hand) for spring break. The first night there was the Final Four. My grandparents made me turn the game off to eat dinner...are you @&%&*^* kidding me?? I was so restless while UNC knocked off Kansas that I'm sure I angered everyone there. Come Monday night all of that noise was gone. The grandparents and mom went to bed which left my dad, sister and I alone. My sister didn't make it to half time, but I was completely wired throughout. The 'Fab Five' were tough and I thought that they would knock of the Tar Heels as the game went down to the wire. Up by two points Chris Webber corralled a rebound on a missed free throw and appeared to travel as he couldn't decide whether to dribble or pass. I screamed as loud as I could without waking the house. He went down the court into the corner and called a timeout. A timeout his team didn't have. Billy Packer yelled 'that's a technical foul, a technical foul.' I ran around the house yelling the same. North Carolina hit their free throws and won the National Championship. One year as a fan, one championship...this was going to be fun.
1. 2005 - NCAA Tournament vs. Illinois
Then came the drought. Eleven full seasons passed without another championship. By 2005 I had gone through the tortures of four losses in the Final Four, five first weekend losses in the NCAA Tournament and two seasons that have been surgically erased from my memory. As the self described biggest Tar Heel fan that never went to the school, I was at wits end. The run in 2005 gave me hope. After cruising through the first weekend, UNC had a very stiff test against Villanova. After never leading in the first half, North Carolina went on a second half run that looked to end things, but Villanova wouldn't relent. Down by as many as 11, Villanova was within eight when UNC point guard Raymond Felton fouled out. Rarely used Melvin Scott came in and the lead quickly shrank to just two points as Scott found himself at the free throw line. He hit both shots and UNC never looked back. The Heels then beat two Big 10 teams in the Elite 8 and Final 4 to set up a match up with their third straight Big 10 foe in #1 ranked Illinois. This was the game everyone hoped for, #1 Illinois vs #2 UNC. This was the moment I had waited 11 years for. All day at work my only thoughts were about 9 p.m.. When the time came, thankfully my two roommates did not come home. They knew to leave me in peace. Since college I had started watching every tournament game by myself, in the dark. Sad as it sounds, I can't be around fellow humans during tournament games. It would not end well. I didn't sit down the entire game. UNC led throughout until Illinois came roaring back down the stretch. The game was tied with just under three minutes to go. I had lost my voice screaming at the television. Marvin Williams tipped in a miss by Rashad McCants, UNC hit some free throws and held Illinois scoreless during the last few minutes and UNC finally...FINALLY...won another National Championship. I screamed so loud that I actually went to my neighbors house (Duke fans) and apologized for my outburst. Really it was to see their faces. This was as good as it ever got for me.
And then there were days like these.
TOP 10 MOMENTS OF HEARTBREAK AS A NORTH CAROLINA FAN
1995 - NCAA Tournament vs. Arkansas
1992 - NCAA Tournament vs. Ohio St.
2011 - December 3 at Kentucky
10. 1998 - February 28 at Duke
Just 23 days after North Carolina routed Duke in a battle of #1 vs. #2 the two teams met again eight miles down the road in Cameron Indoor Stadium. This time Duke was #1 and UNC was #3, but the story remained the same. UNC dominated. They were up 17 points nearly halfway through the second half when it all came crumbling down. The lead slipped away as Duke exerted itself and was fueled by they evil Cameron Crazies and Duke took the lead late. UNC had two different chances to tie the game from the free throw line, but both Ed Cota and Brendan Haywood missed. The kicker for this game is the nauseating image of super villain Steve Wojciechowski sprinting through the oncoming mob of Duke fans (I swear he pushed a little old lady out of the way) in order to hug
his dad Coach K in congratulating him on his 500th coaching victory and the ACC regular season title. What a horrid ending.
9. 1999 - NCAA Tournament vs. Weber St.
'The Show' - The 1999 season following the departures of Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter and Shammond Williams was not a good season. It wasn't a bad season and, in fact, I believe UNC outplayed their expectations. If you take away the three losses to Duke, who was the best team in the country that year save for choking in the National Championship game, North Carolina went a very respectable 24-6 heading into the NCAA Tournament. This was saying something when I look back at the roster and see that Ademola Okulaja was the teams leading scorer and Max Owens (who??) was the fifth leading scorer. In between Brendan Haywood and Ed Cota tried their best to keep the Heels competitive. In the tournament they were handed a very generous #3 seed and a first round pairing with unknown Weber St.. I read through their team bio and I was told to worry about some guy named Harold Arceneaux. I wasn't worried. It was the first round and even though North Carolina had been scared some in the past (Fairfield in 1997) they had always pulled it out. Harold 'The Show' Arceneaux didn't care. He poured in 36 points as Weber St. knocked out UNC on the first night of the tournament. I didn't think that could happen. Thank you UCONN for keeping me somewhat sane that season.
8. 2005 - February 9 at Duke
Heading into this game, North Carolina stood 19-2 and was ranked #2 in the country. Duke was #8 in the country and once again the two teams played a classic battle that wasn't decided until the final possession. This was not the prettiest game that North Carolina ever played to say the least. Duke forced turnover after turnover and led throughout the game. Just as I was about to give up, UNC did what UNC does when trailing which is put on a patented second half run to make it close. Throughout the fan boards there is always talk about 'time and score' when it comes to UNC. It seems like they try to keep the deficit equal to the minutes left on the game clock. Down 10 with 10 minutes to go? No problem. Make it down 4 with 4 minutes to go. That's the mantra. This time UNC trailed by nine with just five minutes remaining, but after a Rashad McCants basket, the lead had been trimmed to a single point with just a minute to play. Fast forward to the final possession. The score is the same and UNC put the ball into the hands of Raymond Felton with a chance to steal a game from Duke on their home court. Now my juices are flowing. The Tar Heels ran the same play that was used to down #1 ranked Connecticut a year earlier in Chapel Hill, but this time JJ Redick overplayed the pass to McCants and Felton was left confused on what to do. Instead of taking his own shot he made an errant pass and the game was over. Comeback denied.
7. 2000 - NCAA Tournament vs. Florida
This game is a difficult one to rank. The 2000 team caused me to feel every bit of emotion that I could muster. A preseason ranking of #6 that eventually climbed to #2 gave me hope. Then the bottom fell out and by January the team fell out of the rankings for the rest of the season. I was now (insert catchy synonym to downtrodden). UNC lost in the first round of the ACC tournament and I was completely exasperated. Given an #8 seed based off of name alone I assume, I did not go into the NCAA tournament with any expectations. Then something happened. Playing only six players, UNC banded together to go on a very improbable run. They beat #9 Missouri. Upset #1 Stanford. Took down #4 Tennessee. Eked past #7 Tulsa. This team was now headed for a Final Four!! I was in college at James Madison University and my club baseball team was headed down to UNC for our final road trip of the season that weekend. It was my senior year and my final trip. Emotional times. I had been on campus two years earlier, but this time it had an aura of finality to it. I pitched my best game for JMU that morning beating N.C. State in the first round of a tournament we ended up winning (against UNC on Sunday as they were in a state of mourning I assume). Maybe a magical Saturday night was in store. UNC was outplayed, out talented and out manned. Down 18-3 early, the game looked to be over before it started. A big first half by Brendan Haywood and a great first five minutes of the second half by Joseph Forte propelled UNC to a six point lead with 14 minutes to play. Then Ed Cota picked up two quick fouls and without any depth, UNC was forced to back off its defensive pressure allowing Florida to pick them apart. On offense, UNC looked exhausted and fell, scoring just 10 more points the rest of the way. The campus was silent that night...I wandered aimlessly in despair.
6. 1997 - NCAA Tournament vs. Arizona
The 1997 season ended up being Dean Smith's final year as North Carolina head coach. This is why this game hurts a little bit more than others. Just like in 2000, the 1997 team went only six players deep and it was another team that got hot late. After losing to Duke and dropping to 12-6 overall, North Carolina reeled off nine straight to end the regular season, then won the ACC Tournament for 12 games in a row and were rewarded with a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. There they survived the first round against Fairfield then dispatched of Colorado, California and Louisville to head to the Final Four where they would meet Arizona who conveniently beat overall #1 seed Kansas clearing the path to a hopeful National Championship game for the Tar Heels against Kentucky. A funny thing happened though. Sixteen wins in a row gave me supreme confidence that UNC could get past upset minded Arizona. Even though Arizona beat UNC in the first game of the season, I knew that each team was completely different by April. Through the first 10 minutes everything was going fine. UNC looked to have more talent, but sloppy play kept Arizona close. By halftime, Arizona had surged ahead as UNC went into an 8+ minute dry spell that leaked into the first four minutes of the second half. After making his first shot, Shammond Williams missed his final 12 shots and Ademola Okulaja went 1-8 in the game. That 2-21 shooting was all you really needed to know about how the second half progressed. UNC could never string together enough good play as Arizona knocked them out and ended the storied career of Dean Smith.
5. 2008 - NCAA Tournament vs. Kansas
The game that Billy Packer dubbed to be over with just under 7 minutes left in the first half. North Carolina entered the 2008 Final Four on a 15 game winning streak and were met by Kansas who was the second of a record four #1 seeds to make the Final Four. All North Carolina fans expected this to be the final season for standout All-American Tyler Hansbrough. This is why this game meant so much to me. At 36-2 North Carolina had been the overall #1 seed, but with all four #1 seeds alive and kicking, it appeared to be anyone's title for the taking now. The game against Kansas started out normal enough with Kansas taking an early 15-10 lead. I cannot explain what happened next without the use of excessive profanity. From 15-10 the score ballooned to 33-10 and eventually 40-12 when Packer uttered his famous line about the game being over. I agreed. Sitting alone in the dark of my man cave, I was numb. I looked up every once in a while to see the carnage progress. It was disgusting. Thankfully the players didn't give up. They fought and they scrapped and hopefully over the last 25 minutes of that game they learned the lessons that eventually won them the championship the following season. UNC crawled back to within five points in just 15 minutes of game action. It was improbable and almost impossible to think that they could come all the way back. Danny Green launched a 3 point shot that would have cut the deficit to two points, but it missed and that marked the beginning of the end...again. After the initial 40-12 lead, UNC went on a 41-18 run and that was followed by a Kansas 26-13 run to end things. Damn you Billy Packer, damn you to hell.
4. 1994 - NCAA Tournament vs. Boston College
Coming off of a National Championship during my freshman year in high school, North Carolina reloaded with freshmen Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace in the efforts to win back to back championships. The team started #1 and never dropped below #5 in the polls and after winning the ACC Tournament, they went into the NCAA Tournament as the #1 seed in the East Region. That put their first two games in Landover, MD and I was fortunate enough to get to see them practice leading up to the games. Apparently I also cursed them. North Carolina cruised by Liberty and were lucky enough (so I thought) not to have to face Bob Knight and Indiana in the second round, but instead Boston College a team I knew nothing about. UNC struggled from the outset in their attempts to impose their will over the Eagles. Boston College relied on their starting five and their starting five only as those players scored ALL 75 of the teams points that afternoon. I was locked in my room, resigned to my 19" antenna based television to watch a blurry UNC team struggle. Down all game long, UNC continued to keep it close, but each time they scored, Boston College would answer right back. Down three points and with one final possession, Rasheed Wallace put up an errant three point attempt and UNC lost. I didn't leave my room until it was time to go to school the next morning. No dinner. Nothing. Half of my pain was UNC losing. Half was the knowledge that all I was going to hear the next day was trash talking from my friends and teachers. It wasn't until Charlotte Smith hit that last second buzzer beater in the Women's National Championship Game did I arise from my month long depression.
3. 2012 - NCAA Tournament vs. Creighton
This game marks two oddities in the heartbreak list. This is the only game on the list that I didn't watch and the only game that UNC won. Last March I did what I normally do come tournament time. I took the first four days of the tournament off from work. My wife knew this, but what she didn't realize was that I was surprising her with a romantic weekend trip to New York City. I figured that the 2012 Tar Heels didn't need me watching to get past the first weekend. If they lost, it was probably best I didn't witness it. As it happened to work out, UNC played Friday evening as I was stuck on a bus headed north. Using limited wi-fi I was able to follow on Twitter as they handily beat Vermont. Better news was that Duke was beat by Lehigh, but I'll move on. We had a wonderful weekend and as fate would have it once again, UNC was set to play Creighton on the ride home Sunday night. With the NCAA on Demand app not working I was forced again to track the game via Twitter. Thankfully the game was going swimmingly as UNC appeared headed to the Sweet 16 just in time for me to be able to return to the man cave for my normal routine. Then the ominous tweets started appearing. Apparently Kendall Marshall had a wrist injury. He played almost the entire game, had his best game in a UNC uniform scoring 18 points (which led the team) while dishing out 11 assists. His improved play was the key to UNC vying for a National Championship. In about five minutes time I went from elation to pure and utter heartbreak and anger. Kendall Marshall had his wrist broken while being fouled late in the game with the victory all but secured. There I was, stuck on a bus for the next two hours not being able to lash out. HULK SMASH was going on inside my head. The dream was over. The bulk of the team left for the NBA. Even though UNC won one more game and even though Stillman White tried his hardest to push UNC to the Final Four, the team just wasn't the same. We never got the rematch versus Kentucky that would have had 8-9 NBA caliber players on the court at the same time. What. A. Damn. Shame.
2. 2012 - February 8 vs. Duke
In all my years of being a fan of North Carolina, I have thankfully not had to witness many buzzer beating defeats. The ones that have happened have, for the most part, faded into the deep, dark recesses of my subconscious. Then along came Austin Rivers. He only played one season for arch rival Duke and only two games against UNC, but his footprint will be forever lasting. In a game that Duke led for the entire first half and that UNC controlled for 18 minutes in the second half, all that will be remembered is the final ten seconds. Up by as much as 12 in the second half and still up by 10 points with just over two minutes to play, the Tar Heels looked to be wrapping up a somewhat easy win against Duke. But, oh those last two minutes. Like a band-aid being ripped off a sensitive area of your body, those last two minutes were two of the most painful minutes any North Carolina fan has ever witnessed. Duke hit a three point shot, Kendall Marshall turned the ball over and Duke hit another three point basket. Six points in :21, the lead cut to four. Uh-oh. Harrison Barnes committed an offensive foul on the next possession and Duke scored again to cut the lead to two points. Still 70 seconds left. Tyler Zeller got fouled and hit 1 of 2 free throws and Duke went right down the court and scored. One point game. Eighteen long seconds left. Again Zeller goes 1 for 2 at the line, lead back up to two points. One last chance for Duke. Don't allow them to shoot a 3 please UNC. Please. Pretty please. FOR THE LOVE OF EVERYTHING THAT IS HOLY DON'T LET THEM SHOOT A THREE!!!!!! Cue Austin Rivers...
Yeah I didn't watch that either.
1. 1998 - NCAA Tournament vs. Utah
I started this post writing about my favorite team to not win a championship. The 1998 team with Ed Cota, Antawn Jamison, Vince Carter and Shammond Williams were so much fun to watch. Outside of the 2012 team, I can't think of another team more deserving to have won a championship that didn't. Unlike the 2012 team, the 1998 team didn't have the injury bug to complain about. They just choked. No doubt about it. No denying the fact. This team was 17-0 and later 26-1. They were dominant. They won an ACC game against Florida St. by 48 points!! You don't see that very often. While going 34-4, UNC won their games that season by an average score of nearly 17 points all while playing the 5th hardest schedule in the NCAA. By the time UNC reached the Final Four, it felt all but inevitable to me that they would at the very least be playing Monday night for the Championship. I was a sophomore at JMU and for the first time in my life I traveled to Chapel Hill (with my baseball team) the weekend of the Final Four. I was going to be on campus for the celebration. In fact I watched the game with a couple thousand of the students in the Dean Dome. The holy mecca of sights for any fan of the Tar Heels. It was all coming together. I was in (*blue*) heaven. Then the game started and it appeared UNC was caught in quicksand. A team that looked so fast and so athletic all season long looked lost. Utah was supposed to be the methodical, hard nosed defensive team, but UNC made them look like track stars. It was embarrassing. At halftime UNC trailed by 13. They had scored 22 points. They averaged 82 a game that season. 22 points. The second half was not much better. Utah maintained their lead until late when UNC finally woke up and made a run. With two minutes left the lead had been sliced to two points. Now the Dean Dome was awake. The place was loud. It was everything I had envisioned. It was going to be an ugly win, but come March/April, a win is a win is a win. But that didn't happen. UNC couldn't get over the hump. They had waited too long. There was no miracle finish. There was no happy ending. Antawn Jamison kissed the court and never put a Carolina jersey on again. Vince Carter left as well. I was left speechless.