Prior to last night’s game I was extremely content with any outcome, not because I didn’t care whether or not UNC won, but because they exceeded my expectations so drastically that it didn’t really matter. This team was amazing following their loss to Pitt, making it all the way to Kansas in the national championship game. The harsh reality, however, is that this was a painful loss thanks to how big of a halftime lead the Heels had, how banged up Bacot was, and how hard Puff Johnson played up until he had the wind knocked out of him in the closing minutes. These are NOT excuses, because really Kansas came out of halftime the better team for the remaining 20 minutes, but these details point to one thing: the Heels left any and everything they had left on the court, and lost. I hurt for this team, but also I’m proud of them beyond words.
However, I do get paid to say words about this game. So, let’s discuss the three main takeaways from last night’s devastating loss.
Puff Johnson gave us a peek into the future
Hubert Davis has been questioned a lot when it comes to UNC’s bench, and for most of the tournament it was hard to continue asking those questions. “The Iron Five” took down team after team to get to the Final Four, though there were special guest appearances from Puff Johnson, Justin McKoy, and Dontrez Styles when Davis felt like he needed to give his starters a break. Each of them gave the team something in prior games, but what Puff Johnson gave the Heels last night was special.
Leaky Black left the game with four fouls early in the second half, meaning that Johnson had to step in. He played extremely hard on defense, pulled down six rebounds, and finished the game with 11 points. He gave the Heels all of the help that he possibly could to keep them in the game, but unfortunately had to leave the game after having the wind knocked out of him. One has to imagine that Black was close to coming back in anyway, but it very well could’ve been that Davis was going to play the hot hand as long as possible.
I hate it for Johnson that he couldn’t stay in, but the big takeaway is that he is going to have an important role on this team next season. Whatever Leaky Black decides, it is still hard to imagine that Davis won’t give Johnson more and more minutes. Clearly he isn’t afraid of big moments, because no moment was bigger than the one last night.
Kansas rolled out a different team in the second half
We’re not going to go into historical collapses and all of that stuff here, because really it does no good to rub salt in such a painful wound. However, we do need to talk about how different the Jayhawks looked in the second half. Their defensive pressure ramped up to a level that the Heels weren’t expecting, and they also managed to get their offense going through David McCormack. He finished the game with 15 points despite being in major foul trouble throughout. Jalen Wilson and Remy Martin also had impressive performances, scoring 15 and 14 respectively.
When it comes to what UNC did and didn’t do on offense, I think the summary of what really happened is this: Kansas pressured them on defense in a way that has bothered them all season long. To their credit, they still handled the pressure much better than they did against teams like Tennessee, Kentucky, and Miami, but it was just too little too late by the time the buzzer sounded. Sometimes the cap needs to be tipped to the better team, and in this case Kansas was the better team when it mattered the most.
Joy should not be stripped from this season
There’s no possible way to make a national championship game loss not hurt. Any fan that says they are not bothered by the result of last night is either lying, or they are lying but in italics. Losing sucks, and losing in a championship game sucks even more. This wasn’t quite the soul-snatching loss to Villanova thanks to K*** J******, but what hurts is that the game slipped away from the Heels in the final 20 minutes, despite having such a spectacular run in the NCAA Tournament.
That leads into my overall point, which is that regardless of the result, there’s a lot to be proud of when it comes to this team. The amount of toughness that they showed on and off the court via losing head-scratching games, taking heat on social media, and taking heat from overall sports media, has been impressive beyond belief. Nobody could’ve imagine that this team would be able to do what they did this season, and that really speaks to two things: one, a lot of people were wrong about who these guys are. I’ve heard players called selfish, they’ve been called soft, etc., and I hope some people are embarrassed in hindsight.
The second thing is that Hubert Davis may have done the best coaching job in the country this season. It’s infuriating to think that he didn’t win any coaching awards, but that really speaks to how terrible those are anyway. Not only do I believe that Davis was the right man for the head coaching job at UNC, but I think that he brought the absolute best out of these players, and that’s how they ended up in the Final Four. It’s ok to not be ok, but I hope we all realize how amazing this season was, and how amazing Carolina basketball’s future is going to be. The 2021-22 season may be over, but the Hubert Davis era has just begun.
It is still a great day to be a Tar Heel.