“Has there ever been a more heroic defeat?” Brian Moore, an English soccer commentator, asked this of England’s national team in 1998 when, after playing nearly 70 minutes a man down, they finally bowed out of the World Cup on penalties against Argentina. That same question applies to the 2016 North Carolina Tar Heels.
For the incredulous among you (and I certainly don’t begrudge you any disagreement), I thought long and hard about leaving this game off the list. Gonzaga Redemption or not, it will never cease to hurt, and it was a loss after all. But it was the most courageous defeat a Tar Heel team has ever had, a brilliantly played game, and a last minute comeback that was all heart and came up short by the slimmest of margins. Great teams lose all the time, but this team went out on its shield. And so here it is.
The 2016 North Carolina Tar Heels felt like a team of destiny. Particularly the senior class of Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, and Joel James. The trio had (along with J.P. Tokoto) arrived in Chapel Hill to little fanfare and had inherited a nightmare situation: UNC had just been robbed of a shot at a title the year before due to a rash of injuries, the program was in the midst of an academic scandal that undermined the team’s recruiting efforts, and the PJ Hairston saga in 2014 gave the perception around the country (at least the parts where they breed haters) that the Carolina Way was dying. These young men had been dealt a bad, and unfair hand.
But they rose to the challenge as few could: Paige was a model student-athlete, one of the finest the school (or any school) has ever seen, Johnson grew over his four years as much as any player Roy Williams has had, eventually becoming a first-team All-American, and Joel James, though never a star, was an emotional leader and team-first contributor (also a Hall of Fame bench celebrator).
The Tar Heels exorcised a series of demons on their way through the 2016 season: They finally beat Duke in Durham, they won their first ACC Regular Season crown since 2012, and they followed it up with an ACC Tournament Championship by beating Virginia in one of the most hard-fought ACC games in recent memory. They then marched through the NCAA tournament with a series of routs, the last three over Indiana, Notre Dame, and Syracuse to reach the National title game. They had won ten straight and were playing their best basketball of the season at the perfect time.
Awaiting them were the Villanova Wildcats, the only team in America that might have been hotter than the Tar Heels. Their last two victories were masterpieces, shutting down a loaded Kansas team in the Elite Eight, then obliterating the Oklahoma Sooners and National Player of the Year Buddy Hield 95-51. Nova were a deep, balanced, high-IQ team led by Josh Hart, Ryan Arcidiacono, Daniel Ochefu...and Kris Jenkins. They were also playing their best basketball at the perfect time...
The first half was a wild one: The Tar Heels had the most dominant frontline in the nation and the Wildcats sold out keeping them from working the ball in the paint. Fronting the Carolina bigs, pressuring the entry passer, and mugging the bigger Heels whenever they did get inside, they took UNC out of their game. But the Tar Heels, a team whose weakness was outside shooting, caught fire from deep. In particular, Joel Berry, who was 3-3 from downtown in the first half and had 14 points at intermission. Paige and Justin Jackson got in on the act as well and UNC seized control late in the half.
But Villanova hung close, thanks to Kris Jenkins and especially Phil Booth, who had a terrific game off the bench. A big momentum-shift play ended the first half, when Justin Jackson was stuffed on a breakaway by Josh Hart with 12 seconds left. The Heels, leading by seven, had been looking at the chance to stretch the lead. Instead, Booth nailed a buzzer beater to cut it to five heading into the locker room. UNC 39-34.
In the second half, Villanova got hot. With Rollie Massimino in the stands, evoking memories of their 1985 “Perfect Game” against Georgetown, the Wildcats suddenly looked unstoppable once again. Their physical denial defense stayed effective, but now they started nailing shots, many of them tough, contested looks. Carolina meanwhile, fruitlessly attempting to pound the ball inside, got away from their hot-shooting. On top of that, they were on the receiving end of some questionable officiating, especially with Kennedy Meeks. Only the play of Marcus Paige kept Carolina from completely losing control of the game. Despite Paige’s efforts, Nova held a 67-57 lead with 5:26 to go. They had played as good of a 15 minutes of basketball as you can and looked to be on their way to a second national title.
The next five and a half minutes were what made the game legendary. The Tar Heels grit their teeth and dug deep, clawing back into the game. Big shots from Berry, Paige, and Johnson began to cut into the lead and with 1:52 left, it was 70-64, UNC ball. Paige had a shot blocked out of bounds, but on the ensuing inbounds play he was freed up and drilled a corner three, 70-67. A terrible pass by Arcidiacono gave the ball back to the Heels and Johnson nailed a one-handed jumper in the lane with 1:00 left, 70-69.
On the next possession, the most notorious moment of the game occurred: With the shot clock winding down, Phil Booth got the ball on the wing and tried to work into the paint past Isaiah Hicks. He picked up his dribble, pivoted, dragged his pivot foot, and took another extra step before firing up a prayer in which Hicks hit him on the arm. In short, he traveled TWICE, but got bailed out by a referee error and a foul call. It should’ve been UNC ball, down 1 with 35 seconds left. Instead, Booth hit both free throws and it was 72-69.
UNC brought the ball upcourt and Paige got all the way to the rim, missing a point blank finger roll that was halfway down before popping out. Josh Hart grabbed the rebound, which would’ve sealed the game, but the much smaller Paige ripped it out of his hands and stuck it back up and in with 22 seconds left. 72-71. Hart was then fouled with 13.5 left and made both to make it 74-71 and set up arguably the most memorable finish in college basketball history.
Here’s the Paige shot, with Brendan Haywood as color commentator. Don’t watch the full video if you don’t wanna...you know...
Berry found Paige on the wing, just barely avoiding the arm of Daniel Ochefu who gambled and went for the steal, ending up on the floor instead. Arcidiacono closed out well and caught Paige up in the air. Paige later said he was looking to pass inside but in midair made the decision to hoist it. The last 2 minute of the game were the culmination of the journey one of the great Tar Heel heroes of all time: There has never been a better ambassador for Carolina basketball than Marcus Paige. And for a few priceless, all-too fleeting moments, it looked like he had been rewarded as deserved.
We know what happened next. We can dwell on the mistakes that were made on the final play by both Hicks and Johnson. We can also point to the several mistakes that were made by the refs throughout the game. But we have to give credit where credit is due: Villanova was a brilliant team, worthy champions, and made the big play. 99% of college basketball teams would have lost their heads when a shot like Paige’s went down. In fact, plenty of past Wildcat teams would have. These Wildcats didn’t.
Paige finished with 21 points to lead all scorers. Berry, who didn’t see the ball nearly as much in the second half, added 20. The front line of Johnson, Meeks, and Hicks were held to just 22 points and UNC got just 6 points total off the bench. Phil Booth finished with 20 points on 6-7 shooting and, were it not for Jenkins, would have been the hero on the night. Arcidiacono added 16 and Jenkins himself had 14. Despite their limited interior scoring, UNC pounded the Wildcats on the glass, outrebounding them 36-23 and ripping down 16 offensive boards. Nova, however, shot 58% from the floor and were 8-14 from three. UNC, maligned for its outside shooting all year, hit 11-17 threes.
North Carolina has played in many title games, but three of them in particular stand out as all-time classics. As you may have already guessed, two of them were victories and will be appearing later on this list. This is the third. It may not have ended in victory, but it was one of the best played title games ever (maybe THE best) and, in Marcus Paige, featured one of the heroic efforts and classic moments in Tar Heel history.