It’s not something that can really be taught, although you’d be forgiven for thinking so in the face of what some Tar Heels have done in the past. Not every team has had it, mind you, but there are some teams and players for whom it was readily identifiable. It’s Tyler Hansbrough playing the ACC Tournament in a facemask after a cheap shot to end the regular season. It’s Ty Lawson playing through a badly jammed big toe en route to a national title. It’s Eric Montross draining a free throw with blood streaming down his face. It’s Joel Berry II carrying a team to redemption on two sprained ankles. It’s Walter Davis rising up and banking in a long jumper to notch the tying seventh and eighth points in 17 seconds.
It’s small things. It’s the look in Garrison Brooks’ eyes after an and-one. It’s Brandon Robinson sending a defender flying past with a step-back to bury a three. It’s Cole Anthony sizing up a defender and deciding that the player opposite him won’t stop him from getting to the rim. It’s Christian Keeling checking back into the game after what looked like an ugly ankle roll. It’s the entire Carolina team coming together and playing well enough to extend their season. It’s a decision that an individual has to make, and one that this year’s squad seems to have all agreed upon. It’s the choice to fight to the bitter end, through heartbreak, pain, and uncertainty.
Carolina basketball has plenty of past examples of the grit I’m talking about. Each of the names mentioned in the first paragraph of this piece now hang in the hallowed airspace of the Dean Dome, and the cherished memories they’ve given to generations of Tar Heels cannot be discounted. This team will not have the same impact, it’s true; it’s much easier to remember these special moments in the midst of a winning season. It’s possible that people will forget the way the senior Robinson kept fighting his way back from injury after injury. It’s likely that people will misremember the improvement of the grad transfer Keeling, who started slow but found his shot in the later parts of the season to get the Heels back to some semblance of on-track. I, for one, am hopeful that Brooks’ senior season will eclipse his already stellar junior year. Anthony may have played his only year in the blue and white, but we’d be remiss to forget that it would have been easy for him to shut it down after injuring his knee.
None of this should discount the fight that we’ve seen from this team. Earlier this season, a first-round ACC Tournament exit seemed inevitable. The fact that the Heels were able to extend the season at all is a small miracle, and even with the wheels running all the way off against Syracuse last night I’m not reaching to say I’m proud of this team. The Heels fought all season against sometimes-insurmountable odds, getting back up every time they took one on the chin. Fighting like that must get tiring, and I think that exhaustion finally came home to roost in the final game of the season. Now we can all rest, and turn hopeful eyes towards the promise of next season.