It never gets easier, does it? I told myself, after Saturday’s game, that anything else would be icing on an already-unexpectedly-good cake. Hell, I told myself the same thing after the first weekend of the tournament. At the beginning of this year, I thought the ceiling of this team was a respectable Sweet Sixteen appearance in a year in which the team was largely unheralded and even discussed as a bubble team a few short months ago. To make it to the Final Four at all was an unexpected blessing. To beat Duke to earn a spot in the national title game was nigh unthinkable. To go into the halftime break holding a fifteen point lead over the Jayhawks was impossible to imagine, but this team did that.
Losing in the national title game is a hard pill to swallow. I’ve never experienced it first hand, obviously, but it’s plenty hard to watch. Armando Bacot ended the game watching, just like me. Living and dying in those split seconds between the net and the rim, doing impossible geometric calculations involving arc and rate of speed as the ball floated through the air and the final precious seconds slipped away from the 2021-2022 basketball season.
Armando Bacot wasn’t supposed to be watching. A dominant player like him, sometimes bordering on a force of nature, was supposed to end the season on the court with a chance to influence the outcome. A person like him, an outstanding ambassador on and off the court for the program we all cherish, deserved to be out there on the floor with his teammates. The Iron Five as a whole deserved the hero’s ending, that scene just before the credits roll and the music kicks up, that last bit of dialogue that wraps everything up in a nice little bow. That music was supposed to be “One Shining Moment,” and the confetti was supposed to be a different color. Caleb Love, after already being a hero in the Final Four, deserved to have a shot at Most Outstanding Player. Leaky Black deserved to see his stellar defensive work hold through the second half. Brady Manek deserved to have his trust in Coach Davis and the North Carolina program rewarded with a ring and a strip of nylon. RJ Davis deserved to be rewarded for carrying the team through those few scoring droughts in this tournament. Puff Johnson played well enough to deserve a ring to match his brother’s. Three of the five starters ended with double-doubles; that type of performance generally means you deserve to win.
It never gets easier, I’m afraid. The outstanding luck we have, as a fanbase, to even make it to enough national title games to be able to cite multiple heartbreaks between them doesn’t lessen the sting. The Heels came down to the wire against a really good team from Kansas, but that doesn’t make it hurt any less. It’s a hard thing to watch, the team that we have grown to love over the course of the season falling just short; hobbling across the finish line just three points shy of the national champion Jayhawks.
The Tar Heels finally ran out of gas. It’s a cliché to say that the team left everything on the floor, but I’ve never been one to shy away from kitsch, and in the case that a player winds up actually heaving on the court, I think it’s warranted. The Iron Five (or Steel Six if we want to make Puff Johnson an honorary member for his outstanding performance last night) fought like hell to pull the game back from the brink after the Kansas blitz to start the second half, even through rolled ankles, head injuries, and foul trouble. There’s no shame in coming up just short to a very good and very deserving Kansas team, but that doesn’t mean this doesn’t still hurt.
In the coming days, there will be a lot to say about this team. There will be departures, as Brady Manek will be heading off to the next chapter of his career, having made both Oklahoma and North Carolina fanbases extremely proud. There will likely be other guys who will not be around next season, and we will always remember their names and what they gave to make this such a special season. There will be pieces written on the triumph of Hubert Davis as a head coach, and the unimaginable run on which this team ended the season. There will be dissections of the final game, analysis of each and every ‘what if’ that clouds the time between the final buzzer and the tipoff of the next season.
It’s been an absolute pleasure to watch this team finish the season, and there is a whole lot to be proud of. It’ll never get easier to lose a national title game, no, but it will always be fun to remember the ride. Even today, it’s a good day to be a Tar Heel.