North Carolina’s loss on Monday night to Kansas was heartbreaking. There’s a lot to be proud of in the way the team fought, but there’s also a lot to dissect about the way everything went down. It’s just that the fashion in which the loss happened is going to make it sting more than pretty much any other way that game could’ve played out.
Getting to the National Championship Game is never easy, so who knows when it happens next. With the turnaround over the last couple weeks, there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic about with Hubert Davis and the way the program is headed. However, Davis could build some awesome teams over the next few years and still fall short, because getting to the final Monday night of the season isn’t something that can be done with the snap of fingers.
UNC men’s basketball had been lucky to have won six NCAA Tournament championships in their history. What so many of them have in common is that it’s taken a little heartbreak to get there a long the way.
The first Heels men’s basketball title I was both alive and an active participant in Carolina fandom (I was born in 1991) was 2005.
The years that led up to that were heartbreak in the form of the program falling apart. Roy Williams famously didn’t leave Kansas after Bill Guthridge’s retirement in 2000, leading to the hiring of Matt Doherty. That didn’t go great, and at the second time of asking Roy eventually decided to come home and help restore the program back to where it should be.
In just his second year, he accomplished that, leading the Heels to the 2005 National Championship, and also getting the “can’t win the big one” monkey off his own back.
The very next year, a super young team led by upstart freshman Tyler Hansbrough semi-shocked the college basketball world with an excellent season. They beat Duke in Cameron and got a #3 seed in the tournament despite losing so much from the year before. The loss to George Mason sucked, but they looked like they would be a title contender the very next seasons.
They were, but they then lost a lead in the Elite Eight against Georgetown. The next year really seemed like it would be THE year when Hansbrough won National Player of the Year as the team went 32-2 through the ACC Tournament. However, an even more brutal loss to Kansas was waiting in the Final Four, and it seemed like that era of Tar Heels’ basketball might come and go without a banner to show for it.
Then everyone came back, and Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green, and the rest of an excellent roster put together another great season. The tournament happened, and they were clearly the best team, and steamrolled their way to another title. The stepstone nature of the previous tournament runs made it all the sweeter when that group finally cut down the nets.
The next couple years featured their next best shot at a title ruined by injury. (Glares at Creighton.) Then the “NCAA junk” as Roy would call it began, and there as a definite dip in recruiting. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson and co were so often tasked with dealing with academic scandal questions for something that they didn’t have anything to do with.
However, it seemed like after dealing with all that, they were going to complete their run as some of the most beloved players in program history with a championship in 2016. Then a certain shot happened. While the likes of Joel Berry, Justin Jackson, and Theo Pinson would still return, getting back that far the very next year seemed like an unbelievably arduous task. Not that means teams in the modern tournament era have managed to do that.
Except they did do it. Under a motto of “Redemption,” that group battled their way through numerous close, edge of your seat games. Rallying against Arkansas, Luke Maye’s shot against Kentucky, rebounding heroics against Oregon, they won them all to get back to the final night. There they completed their redemption with another incredible clutch performance against Gonzaga.
While, I didn’t experience them personally, there’s also plenty you can point to in the years leading up to the 1982 and ‘93 titles as well. (Maybe even ‘57, I haven’t investigated all the old timey news footage.) All of UNC’s titles have had some heartbreak in the journey leading up to them.
Whenever the next one happens, that one will have too. It’s these moments like Monday night that make the victorious ones feel that much better. Winning in a dominant fashion every season might be fun for a little while, but, at least for me, it would grow old after a bit. I want to feel feelings about my team’s success, and I certainly felt feelings after Monday night.
There’s plenty to be sad about, especially since this exact group won’t get to accomplish it together. But whenever it does happen, it’s going to be all the sweeter, thanks to the incredible moments and the heartbreak from the 2021-22 North Carolina Tar Heels men’s basketball team. You boys won’t be forgotten.