By Adam Lucas
WASHINGTON D.C.—It will probably not surprise you to learn that when Joel James wins an Atlantic Coast Conference championship, he does not take small souvenirs.
That explains, then, why the Tar Heel senior was walking around the UNC locker room asking his teammates to autograph a 2016 ACC Tournament Championship sign that was the size of a backboard.
Literally. It was the size of a backboard. Because that’s where James had gotten it.
“It was on the backboard when we were cutting the net,” James said. “And Brice was hogging the net, so I said, ‘I’m going to take something, and I think I’m going to take that sign.’”
So he did. “It was bolted on there,” James said with those wide eyes, “but I just took it.”
That half-hour after Carolina wins any sort of a title takes months and months to achieve and then happens in a series of snapshots that go by much too quickly. The game was torture. The 61-57 win over a game Virginia squad felt every bit like a Final Four contest.
Washington doesn’t really care about the ACC Tournament, and the Verizon Center neighborhood is a little sketchy, and our cab driver actually said, “Is Duke still in it?” on Saturday, but it remains a pretty perfect place to have a Carolina-Virginia ACC championship game. The crowd was split almost evenly in half, meaning every basket, every turnover (there were too many of those), every defensive stop was greeted with a huge roar.
We stood for most of the final minutes. At one point, the gentleman in front of me, who was of the age that he probably saw Lennie Rosenbluth play in person, turned to walk up the aisle in a one-possession game late in the second half.
“You can’t leave now!” his seatmate told him.
“Yes I can,” he said. “It’s time for a good luck pee.”
And I’m not saying it worked or didn’t work, but right after that Justin Jackson intercepted a pass and sprinted down the court and dunked it, and don’t you ever doubt the power of timely restroom breaks.
All of it—Marcus Paige’s incredible defense, Joel Berry’s timely shooting, Isaiah Hicks’ crashes to the basket—ended with red, white and blue shiny confetti being fired from the arena rafters. Thousands of strands of it, some eventually being worn like a cape by Kennedy Meeks. The scene on the court was pure joy, one of the very few times that this particular group has truly been able to relax and enjoy an accomplishment and not worry about anything other than what they just achieved.
You think it’s a big deal? Even Sean May, who has some hardware in his trophy case, was impressed. “I had to tell Brice thank you for this one,” he said as he held his piece of the net. “I don’t have one of these.”
Johnson was standing across the court with his long arms wrapped around the ACC championship trophy. “I need someone to hold this,” he said. He had other things to do—there was another net to cut.
“That whole moment of being out there on the court celebrating was a dream come true,” said Theo Pinson. “I wish I could keep replaying it and replaying it. It was something I will never ever forget. I don’t think it’s really hit anybody yet. Maybe Coach, because he has done it before.”
Maybe Pinson is right. But watching Roy Williams celebrate with his team, turning his hat sideways and lighting up in a big grin, you got the distinct impression that wins like this never, ever get old. It was hard to tell who on the podium was a 20-year-old and who was twice that. As the players were individually announced to receive their championship trophy, the first person to greet them was assistant coach Hubert Davis, hat cocked to the side, enormous smile on his face, hug awaiting.
It’s the kind of scene you watch and then you realize your face is hurting because you’ve been smiling without even realizing it. Imagine what it’s like to live it.
“In that moment, there is so much going on,” said Nate Britt. “First, we’re all jumping around and celebrating. Then they pass out hats and we’re like, ‘Ohhhh, we get hats!’ Then they pass out shirts and we’re like ‘Ohhhhh, we get shirts!’ They’re dropping confetti and they want us to cut the nets and it’s a lot going on.”
On the way off the court, Paige kicked through a pile of the confetti. “Gimme that!” he shouted. “We’re taking all of it!”
The Tar Heels couldn’t get enough of it. They paused their locker room celebration to send out a group of nearly a dozen players. They went back down the hallway, back through the tunnel, to the now-nearly empty Verizon Center. They were looking for their families, who had already been shepherded towards the arena exits.
No problem. Pinson and Meeks and several of their teammates simply vaulted into the stands, sprinted up the steps, and ran to the concourse. The last lingering Carolina fans who’d stayed to savor every bit of the net-cutting suddenly found themselves surrounded by the very players they’d just been cheering.
“TAR!” rang out one side of the concourse.
“HEELS!” came the answer from a couple sections over.
“Everyone was walking out, and they went crazy when they saw us,” Pinson said. “It was another moment I’m never going to forget.”
Eventually, they all returned to the locker room. After they’d jumped around, after they’d hugged and high fived and taken every piece of memorabilia that wasn’t superglued to the Verizon Center court, there was one voice that could be heard over all the rest of them. It was so loud that it filtered through the closed locker room door, and even those standing down the corridor on the way to the court could hear it.
It was Marcus Paige, who was wearing a net around his neck. “We’re not done!” Paige shouted. “We’re not done!”