Things went as well as anyone could have hoped for UNC in the first half of the national championship game. After shaking off a rough start that saw Kansas get out to a 7-0 lead, UNC jumped off the mat and landed several punches in order to secure a 40-25 lead at halftime.
Unfortunately, from there it was all Kansas. They played like the number 1 seed they are throughout the second 20 minutes, looking nothing like the team that was missing bunnies and looking completely discombobulated in the first half. Carolina had no answer as they struggled to get anything going offensively and couldn’t stop the Jayhawks’ onslaught.
Since UNC’s win over Duke on Saturday, this one especially felt like it was playing with house money for the Tar Heels. Virtually no one thought Hubert Davis’ squad would be making it to the final game of the season when the tournament began, much less when they were left for dead back in January. It has felt like a fairy tale ride for Davis’ first season as head coach, but house money can’t soften the blow of being on the wrong side of the biggest comeback in national championship history.
It was right there, and it slipped away so quickly.
We can talk about all the reasons it probably went down the way it did: Armando Bacot was far from 100% after spraining his ankle against Duke. Give him credit, because he played much better than you or I would have in the same situation. However, it was very clearly nagging at him. Leaky Black, the team’s lockdown defender, had to leave in the second half to nurse four fouls called against him. Puff Johnson was incredible filling in for Leaky, but he was hit in the stomach and ended up spitting up on the court before also having to sit.
There was also the matter of missing the usual contributions from some of their key weapons. Even though every Tar Heel starter except Black finished in double figures, Caleb Love was 5-24 from the field and RJ Davis was a similar 5-17. Having your 1-2 punch of guards shooting that cold is not going to go well many more times than not.
I hate that it had to end like this for Brady Manek, who was exactly what the doctor ordered all year for UNC. I hate that the season ended with Bacot, a true warrior through and through, sitting on the bench because his ankle just couldn’t hold up. I hate that this may have been the forever-underappreciated Leaky Black’s final game in a Carolina uniform when he missed so much of it with foul trouble.
It’s hard to get to the final game of the season and even harder to win it. Someone goes away lamenting every misstep each and every year. It’s just harder when it’s the guys you’ve grown to love. It feels horribly unfair each and every time.
Words can’t say how impressive this run by the Tar Heels was. They showed incredible resilience in the win over Baylor after they lost Manek to an ejection. They gutted one out against UCLA. They ended Saint Peters’ Cinderella run and then polished off a Final Four victory against Duke that we’ll all remember for the rest of our time on the mortal coil. They did all of that with a first year head coach.
It hurts because it means something — to you, to me, to each of them. We’re so fortunate that we’ve gotten to be on this ride with them, and we can only hope that the next time the Tar Heels are on top of the basketball world isn’t too far off. They were so close tonight before the tank hit empty, and that’ll somehow make next time all the sweeter.