By Adam Lucas
KANSAS CITY--It's over.
Those are the two worst words to write about any Carolina basketball season. They're worse than "home loss," "ACL injury," or "Randolph Childress." This year, they're worse even than "at Indiana," "senior night" or "selection committee."
For the second straight year, it's over at the hands of Kansas, the first time ever a team has ended Carolina's season two straight years in the NCAA Tournament. Last year was painful because it felt like the Tar Heels didn't get a chance to compete at full strength. This year was painful because it just seemed like it was time for one of those games.
You know the kind: 1990 over Oklahoma. 2000 over Stanford. 2013 over Kansas in Kansas City.
After all, Carolina had been here before. Literally, right here. The Tar Heels won the 1957 national championship by beating Kansas in triple overtime just a few blocks from the Sprint Center.
Jim Exum was one of the very few Carolina fans who made the 24-hour drive from Chapel Hill to Kansas City to watch those back-to-back triple overtime games. His friends thought he was a little wacko, as Roy Williams might say, for driving halfway across America when the game would be on television at The Goody Shop on Franklin Street, where lots of other students would gather to watch the game.
He has lived an incredibly full life and has been a North Carolina Supreme Court justice. And yet his eyes light up when he tells the story, 56 years later, of driving to Kansas City to watch a basketball game.
Exum didn't have a phone in his dorm room, attended home basketball games in a 5,000-seat gymnasium and never dreamed of texting or FaceTime.
But I really think he would have a lot to talk about with Jackson Reeves, Luke Bartelt, Ben Clark and Ben Brown, four current Carolina students who left Chapel Hill at 11 p.m. Saturday night to drive to Kansas City to watch the Tar Heels. Their friends thought they were a little wacko, as Roy Williams might say, for driving halfway across the country to watch basketball when the game would be televised across the world and on smart phones, tablets and laptops.
But they had a friend who knew Frank Tanner, and Frank Tanner's family couldn't come to the game, so the quartet could use the Tanner family's tickets. The combination of free tickets and a road trip was, as you might remember if you think back far enough, irresistible for a college student.
The bad weather started in St. Louis. They were 240 miles from the arena and started doing SAT-type calculations as the snow and sleet pelted the windshield of their two-wheel drive Honda Fit. There were only six hours until tipoff. Their current pace was 20 miles per hour. They used the internet to check traffic cams on the road ahead, and none of them looked good.
After they'd crawled through the snow for 90 minutes, someone finally voiced what they were all thinking but afraid to speak out loud:
"Guys, what if we don't make it for the game?"
A more rational question might have been, "What are we doing in the middle of a Midwest blizzard?" But this was no time to be rational. They kept driving, and suddenly, with virtually no warning, the sky cleared just a little and the state of Missouri road-scrapers did admirable work.
Their speed increased. The calculations continued. This time, once they were sure, another voice spoke up: "Guys, we're going to make it for warmups."
I saw them roughly an hour before tipoff inside the Sprint Center. Ben Brown watched the Tar Heels going through their pregame shooting drills, grinned a wide smile, and said, "We've come to the conclusion that since we made it, we're going to win the game."
Here's the thing: this seemed perfectly reasonable to me. Yes, Carolina should win the game, because these four Carolina students drove 16 hours to see it and they would tell this story beginning Sunday night and ending never, and each time the snow would get deeper and the road would grow longer and Kansas would grow more fearsome, to the point that Wilt Chamberlain his own self would have cowered in the face of Jeff Withey.
What was it their friends had told them?
Well, "You're crazy," first of all.
But then: "We're jealous."
Less than three months ago, this Carolina team wasn't much fun to watch. They were not worth driving 16 hours to see. There were some who wouldn't drive 16 minutes to see them. They were drubbed by Butler and routed by Indiana and smoked by Texas and drilled by NC State and flattened by Miami.
All of that happened this season and yet it feels like years ago. It somehow feels like we didn't get our recommended yearly allowance of Carolina basketball this season. Think of your favorite moments from the season--a large majority of them probably happened in the last dozen games. We're supposed to have five months to choose from when we're trying to to remember the fun times during the season. Instead, there's only a month.
Sure, Roy Williams changed the rotation, but something else changed, too. Because suddenly P.J. Hairston was taking charges and Marcus Paige was making late-game floaters over seven-footers and this year's motley team looked like, well, they looked like a Carolina basketball team. About the time Leslie McDonald ripped away a rebound from Withey in the first half on Sunday night, simply refusing to let the Jayhawks' seven-footer have the ball, it began to seem realistic.
It felt like this team deserved more than being sent to Kansas City to be some second-round road fodder for a highly ranked club, the forgettable type of opponent that Carolina has disposed of many times before in Charlotte and Greensboro. You can't convert every lost soul, but it felt important for everyone else who had dogged the Tar Heels through December and January to at least admit that, yes, this was a real North Carolina basketball team. And after that first half, they would have to do exactly that.
But then the second half began...and wouldn't stop. It wouldn't stop with two Roy Williams timeouts and it wouldn't stop with P.J. Hairston three-pointers and it just...wouldn't...stop. Kansas eventually scored on an incredible 23 of its 26 second-half possessions on which it didn't turn the ball over.
"It was definitely a nightmare in the second half," Williams said.
"We just couldn't get a stop," Marcus Paige said in a stone silent Tar Heel locker room.
I don't know why Carolina basketball does this to us. I don't know why changing seats is a foolproof way to stop an opposing run and lucky shirts must be worn and 16 hours through the snow seems like a reasonable one-way drive to watch two hours of basketball. I have given up trying to figure it out. But I think that if it ever stops, it will be a very sad day indeed.
"This is the craziest thing we've ever done in our lives," Jackson Reeves said as he stood inside the Sprint Center on Sunday afternoon.
But I think maybe it's not crazy at all, and those who are nodding right now or who have their own absurdly fanatical Tar Heel hoops story to tell will understand this:
By the time official Pat Adams threw the ball in the air at 5:25 Eastern time to start the game, I had completely convinced myself that not only did the Tar Heels have a chance, but that they were indeed going to win the game. It was the exact same feeling I had when Stilman White was introduced as the starting point guard last year in St. Louis.
It was ludicrous. It was absolutely irrational. It represented a total break with reality and could not be supported by any statistical or objective analysis of the game. It was the textbook example of hope triumphing over reason, and I'm not proud of it.
Except that maybe I am. And I really wish we didn't have to wait eight months to do it all again.
On the way to the airport on Sunday night, my phone pinged with an email. It was from UNC junior Luke Bartelt, who had absorbed a 12-point beating in the midst of 19,000 Kansas fans and was facing a 16-hour drive back to Chapel Hill with three of his buddies.
"This trip," he wrote, "was totally worth it."
Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and the author or co-author of seven books on the Tar Heels.