by Adam Lucas
PHOENIX—This year. It’s about this year.
After Saturday’s heart-stopping 77-76 win over Oregon in the national semifinals, the Tar Heels will spend the next 40 hours or so answering questions about redemption, and about Kris Jenkins, and about the 2016 NCAA Tournament championship.
That has to be a story. But it’s not the story. Not right now. At the end of the season, when we look back on these two years as a whole, maybe then it plays a larger role. But right now, with one game left to play, here’s a startling conclusion: This season is its own story. It’s plenty all by itself. If you’ve followed the 2017 Tar Heels, you’ve seen an all-time great NCAA Tournament comeback, a buzzer-beater against Kentucky to go to the Final Four by a player no one expected, an ACC Player of the Year performance, the ceiling is the roof…how long do you have?
You know why you feel like you haven’t seen a ride like this before? Because you haven’t. The Tar Heels already came back from the biggest deficit in the shortest amount of time in the program’s NCAA Tournament history (the win over Arkansas). Now they’ve won back-to-back games by two points or less in the same NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1969. What’s in store for Monday? I can’t possibly watch please don’t make me what time is the game oh you know I’ll be there.
There are three very losable games in this five-game NCAA Tournament winning streak. Arkansas, Kentucky, Oregon. Any of these could be losses. Should have been losses, maybe. And yet, on they play. "Every Tar Heel fan in the nation is probably sitting on their couch feeling relief," Pinson said after the win. "I'd just tell them all, 'Imagine if you were out there.'"
No, thank you. I'm having enough problems generating enough oxygen just to watch from the sidelines.
“For our guys, it’s always been about this year,” said senior Nate Britt, who gave the Tar Heels huge minutes against the Ducks. “From the media standpoint, it’s been about how much pressure there is to get back. For us, we take it one game at a time to be the best team we can be. At the beginning of the season, Coach Williams told us he thought our team was good enough to get back to the national championship game, and if we did the things he told us to do, we could be back in that game. That’s been our focus: doing the best we can to make that dream a reality.”
But wait. You’re thinking about that group text labeled “Redemption” and Theo Pinson putting an anguished post-Villanova photo on his phone for the duration of the NCAA Tournament run. That’s last year, right?
It is. But if you spend too much time on that, you miss some very compelling storylines about the 2017 team. Have you noticed that Kennedy Meeks is having an all-time great Tar Heel postseason? It’s true. Think back to 2005: Sean May was unbelievably terrific, right? He had 63 rebounds in Carolina’s six NCAA Tournament games in that national title season, and 23 of them were offensive.
Meeks has 59 rebounds in Carolina’s five NCAA Tournament games this season, and 23 of them are offensive. The most recent one might have saved the Tar Heel season, and was such an epic board you could write an entire story about it. Meeks had just missed two key free throws. After Theo Pinson tipped out the second miss, Meeks was visibly upset, crouched on the University of Phoenix Stadium court with his head down with under five seconds remaining. A few seconds later, he was outfighting two Ducks for an improbable offensive board, then being mobbed by his teammates when the final seconds ticked away.
About that Pinson tip: that’s something Carolina works on almost every day in practice. It wasn’t just a fluky tipped ball. What is it Williams says at virtually every Tar Heel practice? “Everyone except the shooter should be thinking it’s a miss, and try to tip it out to a guard.”
Pinson was thinking the game in addition to playing the game. He noticed Meeks missed the first one short, and prepared for a second miss. The Tar Heels went 0-for-4 from the free throw line in the most crucial part of the game, and won it with the phase of the game that Williams almost always describes as “want-to,” offensive rebounding.
“When we’re gone, Coach will tell that story,” Pinson said of winning it with two offensive rebounds in the final five seconds. “That shows you how big offensive rebounding is.”
You might have thought Williams could never have a deeper connection than he had with the 2016 team. This one is getting close. Joel Berry played somewhat tentatively on his tender ankles and finished 2-for-14 from the floor.
But one of those two made baskets was a key three-pointer with under six minutes remaining. After he drained it directly in front of the Carolina bench, he turned and pointed to Williams.
“After one of the timeouts, Coach Williams told me to get my legs into it,” Berry said. “He told me he believed I was going to knock down my next shot. So when I hit it, that’s why I pointed to him. He believed in me, and that’s the thing he’s been doing since I’ve gotten here. Even though there are times I haven’t been the greatest, he’s always believed in me.”
With connections like that, who needs last year?
The 2017 North Carolina basketball team, completely unexpectedly, has turned into one of the toughest teams in Tar Heel history. Berry hobbles around on two bad ankles but is indispensable. Jackson simply worked his way into having an all-time great season. Meeks has completely devoted himself to doing whatever the Tar Heels need to win games. Pinson alternately tosses assists over his head and then makes unsung, game-saving plays.
They’re going to the national championship game not because of last year, and not because someone made an epic shot. They’re going to the national championship game because they are one of the best, tightest, toughest teams in Carolina history. And Monday night they get the opportunity to be the one thing every Tar Heel team wants to be: forever.
“It’s this year now,” Pinson said. “We have to be in the moment. We can’t think about last year tomorrow or Monday. We set a goal that we have a good enough team to be there on the last Monday night. Now we’re here. We have to take care of business.”