Carolina’s season ended with a dud in 2017-18 with a 86-65 loss to Texas A&M in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Was it a heartbreaking ending, though? Eh, not really. While it was sad to see the seniors graduate on such a sour note after a lackluster performance, you could argue the Heels were an over-seeded #2 and a good-but-not-great team. The 21-point loss to the Aggies was unexpected – the first under coach Roy Williams as the higher seed prior to the Elite 8 round.
Because of both the lopsidedness of the game and the overwhelming material from which to choose, it doesn’t come close to cracking the 15 most heartbreaking losses in the 15-year Williams era, both regular and post season. You will find two losses from last season below, just not the one that ended the year. To save space and extra anguish, this list refers to non-Duke heartbreaks only. For the record, at least six or seven losses to Duke would likely supplant some of those below (Austin Rivers shot clearly #1). The key parameter here is heartbreaking – not necessarily embarrassing, frustrating, disappointing, or surprising. In my opinion:
1. 2016 NCAA Championship Game vs. Villanova (Apr. 4: 77-74)
It is hard to conceive of a more heartbreaking situation in sports than losing a basketball championship on a buzzer-beater. Sure, Villanova had led most of the second half, Marcus Paige had to hit a miraculous shot to only tie the game, and there’s no guarantee UNC would have pulled off the title in overtime. But the Heels certainly held the momentum until… Guard the trailer! I can still hear Jim Nantz: “Villanova, phenomenal!” Yuck. Now, after the 2017 ring, I wouldn’t have it any other way. But it was a most excruciating defeat.
2. 2007 NCAA Elite 8 vs. Georgetown (Mar. 25: 96-84 OT)
This situation is close, however. Carolina held a 10-point lead with seven minutes to play, but made just one of its last 23 field goal attempts in regulation and overtime. One more bucket at almost any time during that seven-minute collapse would have sent UNC to its second Final Four in three years and a shot at the eventual back-to-back champions Florida. Instead, Georgetown blew the Heels off the court in OT and advanced. Being the better team and suffering a historic collapse makes this a hard loss to forget.
3. 2008 NCAA Final Four vs. Kansas (Apr. 5: 84-66)
UNC probably was the better team in 2008, as well (don’t tell people in Lawrence), but the Heels certainly didn’t show it for the opening and closing thirds of this blue blood battle. Longtime CBS irritant Billy Packer declared on the broadcast, “This game is ova!” when Kansas raced out to a 40-12 lead by the third media timeout. Heck, I thought it was over, too. Carolina then ripped off a 38-14 run to trail by only four midway through the second half. After a couple missed opportunities, next thing you know, Coach Williams is showing up on Monday night wearing a Jayhawks sticker, as Kansas had pulled away from the Heels again with a closing 30-16 run before stunning Memphis to win the national championship. This was supposed to be Carolina’s year, and the debacle in San Antonio was only its third loss of the season, so it hurt especially badly. There’s always next year… isn’t that what they say?
4. 2011 NCAA Elite 8 vs. Kentucky (76-69)
In this evenly-matched regional final among two elite programs, fourth-seeded Kentucky pulled off a narrow victory over the second-seeded Tar Heels to advance to the Final Four. UNC overcame an eight-point halftime deficit to take control of the game midway through the second period, but its execution fizzled down the stretch as Kentucky prevailed and Jon Calipari took the Wildcats to the national semifinals for the first time. This overachieving Carolina team came together after a rough start to the year to win 29 games and the ACC regular season title in the wake of the 2010 nightmare. What made this loss so tough, then, was wondering whether this core of young players would get another chance to break through or if this winnable game was their real opportunity.
5. 2003 regular season vs. Wake Forest (Dec. 19: 119-114 3OT)
This was Williams’ first ACC game as UNC head coach. A marathon pre-New Year conference battle in the Dean Dome saw each team score 47 points in the first half, 41 in the second half, 16 in the first overtime, and two in the second overtime. The Deacs won the decisive third extra period 13-8 as Chris Paul (18 points, 8 assists, 5 steals) and company handed Williams his first loss at his alma mater.
6. 2007 regular season @ Maryland (Feb. 25: 89-87)
A close road loss against a quality opponent towards the end of the conference schedule… what’s the big deal? Well, it was a sign of things to come. In this game, Carolina blew a 12-point lead with seven minutes remaining to cost itself an outright ACC regular season title. Brandan Wright missed a chance to force overtime from the free throw line with 3.5 seconds left in the two-point defeat. Exactly one month later, the Heels relinquished a 10-point lead with seven minutes remaining with the season and Final Four on the line (see #2 above).
7. 2016 regular season vs. Kentucky (Dec. 17: 103-100)
This was a wild high-scoring affair at the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas in which Justin Jackson’s 34 points paled in comparison to Malik Monk’s 47 for Kentucky, which led most of the game. UNC rallied to take a two-point lead with under a minute to play on a contested Jackson three-pointer and ensuing layup plus a foul. Despite getting the offensive rebound on Jackson’s free throw miss with 45 seconds remaining, the Heels rushed a shot and Monk hit the go-ahead three-pointer on the other end with 19 seconds to go. Then, as usual, Williams elected not to take a timeout and Isaiah Hicks missed a jumper badly to hand Kentucky a marquee win. Williams’ strategy would be vindicated four months later in the 2017 NCAA Elite 8, when Monk tied the game on an “impossible” three-point shot and Theo Pinson calmly dribbled up the court to find Luke Maye for the game-winning jumper with 0.3 seconds on the clock to advance to the Final Four. Williams won his third championship at UNC the following weekend.
8. 2018 regular season vs. Miami (Feb. 27: 91-88)
This loss elicited frightening flashbacks to the 2016 championship game defeat against Villanova, just with smaller stakes. But it was Senior Night, and it wasn’t a storybook ending for the Heels when Miami’s Jaquan Newton drilled a 40-foot running buzzer-beater after senior Joel Berry had tied the game with an off-balanced three-pointer of his own with 4.1 seconds left (Paige’s shot against Nova was with 4.7 seconds on the clock). Also similarly to the 2016 title game, UNC spent much of its energy fighting back from a 16-point deficit only to suffer the ultimate dagger. This letdown, which snapped a six-game winning streak, might have taken just a bit of the wind out of UNC’s sails down the stretch last season, even though the Heels got revenge on the Canes just nine days later in the ACC tournament.
9. 2013 NCAA second round vs. Kansas (Mar. 24: 70-58)
To be sure, the top-seeded Jayhawks were the far superior team. In fact, this “Roy Bowl” also took place the previous year in the 2012 Elite 8 when the teams were more evenly matched, except that UNC point guard Kendall Marshall was unavailable with a broken wrist and Kansas advanced to the Final Four. If the Heels had fallen to Kansas with Marshall playing, perhaps that would have been harder to take. But in this 2013 matchup, UNC outworked Kansas for a nine-point halftime lead. Williams was prime to beat his former team for this first time, staking a huge upset and advancing to an unlikely Sweet 16 in the process. But it wasn’t meant to be, as Kansas outscored Carolina 49-28 in the second half and Williams fell to 0-3 against the Jayhawks.
10. 2009 regular season @ Maryland (Feb. 21: 88-85 OT)
The Heels looked poised for their 25th win in 27 games to open the season. They built two double-digit leads in the second half, but just like in 2007 in College Park, couldn’t hold off the Terrapins. Greivis Vasquez recorded a triple-double to lead Maryland back, forcing overtime on a jumper with 12 seconds to go, and the Terps won a free-throw battle in overtime to triumph by three points. Luckily the heartache didn’t last too long for Heels fans, as UNC lost only one more game the rest of the way and six weeks later was national champion for the second time under Williams.
11. 2015 regular season @ Louisville (Jan. 31: 78-68 OT)
Carolina was on a major roll entering this game, having won 11 of 12 to improve on a 6-3 start to the season. And the Heels jumped out to an 18-point lead early in the second half in Louisville. But the Cardinals, a good team no doubt, needed fewer than 10 minutes to make up the deficit and battle the Heels neck-and-neck into overtime. Louisville dominated the extra session to win by double-digits and pop UNC’s balloon. The Heels finished just 9-7 the rest of the way, making a nice run to the Sweet 16 where they lost to one-seed Wisconsin. But a better seed might have helped Carolina make a lengthier stay in the tournament, and it was this defeat that changed the course of the season (although there was the usual collapse at Duke a couple weeks later, too).
12. 2014 NCAA second round vs. Iowa State (Mar. 23: 85-83)
When James Michael McAdoo drills two free throws to tie a game with 16 seconds left, you have to feel good about your luck. Instead, Iowa State scored a relatively uncontested layup with two seconds to go to advance to the second weekend of the Big Dance. UNC was robbed of a small chance to tie or win the game after the Cyclones’ go-ahead layup. Both Williams and UNC players were clearly gesturing and screaming for a timeout, but the referees did not grant one and Nate Britt threw up a desperation heave that fell well short as time expired. The tough part about this loss mostly has to do with opportunity cost. Iowa State lost in the next round to Connecticut, the eighth-seeded eventual national champions. The Huskies beat seventh-seeded Kentucky in the championship game. In a tournament truly up for grabs, an average Heels team that did enjoy a 12-game ACC winning streak earlier in the year could have done some serious damage with a little better fortune against the Cyclones.
13. 2004 regular season @ Florida State (Jan. 22: 90-81 OT)
Another notable disappointment from Williams’ first season. UNC sprinted to a 42-18 lead late in the first half before allowing two huge Seminole runs in front of a raucous Tallahassee crowd. FSU closed to 53-43 early in the second half, but the Heels stretched the lead back to 18 midway through the period. It was short-lived, as the Seminoles stormed back again to force overtime, when the only Tar Heel points came on a meaningless three-pointer by Rashad McCants in the final seconds. FSU fans stormed the court at the buzzer of the nine-point victory as the Heels’ collapse dropped the team to 1-3 in conference play.
14. 2010 regular season @ Charleston (Jan. 4: 82-79 OT)
Fortunately or unfortunately, this is my only memory of the 2010 season – the only year UNC has missed the NCAA tournament under Williams. This game may break my own criteria and tend towards “embarrassing” rather than “heartbreaking,” but it certainly isn’t heartwarming to know before MLK day that the team you love will probably miss the Big Dance after winning the whole darn thing just the year before. Charleston tied the game on a three-pointer with two seconds remaining, then stunned the Heels in overtime. Carolina finished the 2009-10 season with a 20-17 record (5-11 ACC) and lost in the NIT championship game to Dayton. Fans are aware of the mass exodus of talent that usually follows a national championship in today’s game, but it’s still tough to handle when it comes.
15. 2017 regular season vs. Wofford (Dec. 20: 79-75)
OK, now I am truly breaking from my definition. This loss was not exactly heartbreaking – just embarrassing. UNC lost on its home floor to the third-smallest school in Division 1 sports. Let that sink in. Fletcher McGee (27 points) shot the hearts out of UNC faithful in a game the Heels were lucky to even make close. It took a late 29-16 run for the home team to come within a point and put real game pressure on the Terriers, but by that time, UNC really had no idea what to do and Wofford pulled off a shocker for the ages. For the most part, Carolina was able to salvage its season. But this was a legendary result in the history of I-85-area athletics.