On Tuesday night against Miami, senior night for guards Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson, the North Carolina Tar Heels found themselves in a familiar situation. With 4.1 seconds left, Berry knocked in an impossible three to tie the game at 88-88. I don’t know about everyone else watching, but I knew better than to celebrate when I looked down and saw that clock. Of course, almost as if it had been rehearsed, Ja’Quan Newton jogged the ball up the floor and sunk a running half-court shot as time expired. Ball game.
Not that anyone needs to be reminded of it, but the ending to this game was eerily similar to one a couple years ago. You know which one I’m talking about. Even the minutes leading up to “The Shot” were shockingly reminiscent of this one. The Heels scratched and clawed their way back into the game behind otherworldly play from senior Marcus Paige, who hit what’s probably the toughest shot in the history of the NCAA tournament to tie the game…and then Kris Jenkins happened.
Millions around the country looked on as perhaps the most beloved Tar Heel in recent history entered a mode that’s seemingly reserved for a particular breed of college basketball player; the type of player that not only possesses the skill to make shots, but also the passion and toughness to rise to the occasion when it matters most. Unfortunately for Paige and the Tar Heels, they came up 4.7 seconds short.
The loss itself was painful. I mean, very painful. But there was nothing more devastating than having to watch a teary-eyed Marcus Paige, a man who poured his heart and soul into Carolina Basketball for four years, saunter off the court in his final game as a Tar Heel having come so close to reaching the pinnacle of college hoops.
Joel Berry’s senior night performance was similar to Paige’s performance in that national championship game in that he was simply making every play possible to give his team a chance to win. That particular breed of college basketball player I mentioned earlier? Joel Berry is undeniably cut from that cloth. It’s why these two guys are part of a select group of players that Roy Williams has deemed worthy of the phrase, “tough little nut”. But again, like Paige, Berry’s heroics were nullified by a heart-dropping shot at the buzzer.
However, here’s where Berry’s story differs from Paige’s: the season’s not over. The pessimist in me could dwell on the fact that Joel Berry’s last game in the Dean Dome ended with such heartbreak, but why look at it like that? As dreadful as that Jenkins shot was, I seem to remember something pretty good occurring the following year. And if we’re being honest with ourselves, that “Redemption” tour doesn’t happen without those guys having to endure such agony and despair the season prior. If there’s one thing this group of Tar Heels is good at, it’s using something negative as motivation, and thus creating something positive out of it.
So, here we are, on the first day of March, coming off the most emotional game of the season. There’s no doubt Berry and Pinson desperately wanted to win that game, and everyone around them wanted it for them. But you’re crazy if you don’t think this will light a fire under a team that’s already among the toughest in the country.
All last season, we witnessed a team that was driven by one particular moment. Those Tar Heels were bound and determined to get back to that first Monday in April and finish what they started. Now that they’ve accomplished that, there’s hardly anymore exterior motivation to draw from, which is why the team’s motto has shifted to “why not”, as in why not do it all again. Still, when Berry, Pinson, Luke Maye, and Kenny Williams watched that shot from Newton drop through the net, I’m willing to bet they were reminded of that horrific feeling they felt a couple years ago.
Forget about the impact on postseason seedings or anything like that for a minute. I’m not going to come out and say that this was a “good” loss or even that there is such a thing, but I will say this: If you’re the opposition, the last thing you want to do is give these Tar Heels a reason to compete even harder. Miami just did.