They talked about it over the summer. They talked about it at Media Day. The sting from the last 4.7 seconds in Houston lingered, but it didn't hang over their heads like a black cloud. It propelled them forward, fueled them for the 2016-17 season. They talked about it a lot, about redemption, about getting back to the national title game. They talked about it enough that one wondered if they'd even realized how difficult it had been even to accomplish what they had, just to get there, just to position themselves to redeem those last 4.7 seconds.
And then they actually did it. They won the ACC regular season by two games. They earned a number one overall seed and a path to the Final Four. Even when one might have thought they'd been caught looking ahead, these Tar Heels found a way through. They overcame a five-point deficit to Arkansas in the second round. They withstood a furious Kentucky rally and hit a last-second shot to advance to the Final Four. They surmounted an eight-point Oregon lead and grabbed two improbable offensive rebounds to secure a bid in the national title game.
Now, they were in a back-and-forth affair with a talented, hot-shooting one-loss-on-the-season Gonzaga team. Those last few minutes approached, the final buzzer looming. The last few minutes, for which they'd played the entire 2016-17 season. A chance to, if not change the result from a year ago, write a new chapter. A happy ending.
Now, a brief aside. There are those who would say that sport fandom is irrational. Investing so much of yourself emotionally in the outcome of a game, in something that you have no control over, it's . . . well it's silly, they say.
Often, it's easy to agree with them. After a tough loss by your team, it's healthy to take a step back, get some perspective. Hug your family and move on. Sport fandom is irrational.
Except, it's not, because our society coalesces around sport like it does little else in life. Sport brings people together. We have pregame tailgates and postgame celebrations. We have gatherings around the television and tickets bought together all so we can share in an experience, witnessing tremendous athleticism and root for our favorite team. We toast to wins and wallow after losses.
As we grow older, our perspective shifts a bit. We don't invest so much in outcomes as we invest in people, those we commune with and those we enjoy watching. We begin to see athletes as three-dimensional people, with incredible talent, certainly, but with thoughts, feelings, emotions of their own. We invest in our sports heroes because they represent a part of us. They are walking, breathing metaphors. We live vicariously through them; weep in times of failure, jump and scream in times of triumph. Whether or not we ever meet them, we feel a connection, one that persists long after their playing days are over.
And so when what happened in Houston happened, our hearts broke just as the Tar Heel players' did. With them, for them. They were right there, and so were we.
And here they were, right there again. Back to the timeout. "He told us we were going to win the game," Stilman White said of his head coach, "and everyone in the huddle believed him, and we went out and made the plays to win the game."
Out of the timeout, Gonzaga's Nigel Williams-Goss missed the first of two free throws, made the second. Then, late in the shot clock, Theo Pinson put up a three-pointer that missed, and Williams-Goss scored to put Gonzaga up one. Sent to the line, Carolina's Justin Jackson missed, then made a free throw, but Williams-Goss answered again.
Carolina trailed by two, inside two minutes. The buzzer continued to loom. No timeout from Roy Williams. No panic from his Tar Heels. Pinson then found Jackson underneath the basket. He made the shot and was fouled, then converted the old-fashioned three-point play. 66-65.
Williams-Goss and Pinson got their feet tangled on the Gonzaga offensive end, and the Bulldogs turned an injury timeout into a full one. After the break, Pinson soared for one of his eight defensive rebounds off a missed Williams-Goss attempt to give the Tar Heels the ball.
And then, after a Kennedy Meeks offensive rebound, the Tar Heels reset their offense under a minute to go. Here, another aside.
When one of our favorites is struggling, we want more than anything for him to overcome those struggles. So that they contribute to a positive outcome, yes, but also because, well, we just care.
Isaiah Hicks is one of our favorites. The affable Oxford native began his career on the wing, playing from the outside in as a freshman. He was not comfortable there, and before his sophomore season, Hicks was genuinely excited about returning to the post, playing with his back to the basket, as he'd done as a dominant high school player. For two years he came off the bench and provided a spark before becoming a senior starter. But Hicks went through a slump recently. After scoring 17 points against Texas Southern in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, he hadn't didn't hit double figures the next two games. Against Kentucky, he was just 2-5 from the field and he gave way to the rise of Luke Maye. In the national semifinal against Oregon, Hicks scored two points –a single dunk– on 1-12 shooting.
On Sunday, Hicks said he wasn't down on himself, enough times that you came around and believed him. "I wouldn't say I'm very frustrated or anything, because I feel like I'm out there just trying, and I feel like when you try and it doesn't go well, just keep trying," he said.
Trying. You don't often hear an athlete at the collegiate or professional level talk about 'trying.' A word like 'try,' rather than 'execute,' for example, conveys vulnerability. It takes away some of the myth of the athlete. It makes them human. "The only pressure is just trying," Hicks said. "At the end of the day, I look at it like I've just got to try. Hope to play the best, but all I can do is try."
Roy Williams was asked about Hicks' struggles on Sunday, the day before the national championship game. "It's a tough time for him as an individual," the coach said. "I keep trying to tell him I believe in him, I trust him. I'm going to keep putting you out there. Said many times I'm not the smartest, but I'm not the dumbest guy. So if I keep putting you out there, I must have more confidence in you than you have in yourself. So hopefully things will change Monday night."
They didn't. Not right away, anyway. Hicks' first field goal attempt came 15 seconds in. He got a good look at a baseline jumper, but it went long. So too did his second shot. But he kept trying. He got a block. A couple of rebounds. A few free throws, and then his first jumper fell inside of three minutes to go in the first half. Hicks proceeded to have a very average Isaiah Hicks game. He'd made a strong move to score late in the shot clock five minutes prior, but with a minute to play he had 11 points, 9 rebounds and four fouls. Not dominant, but not bad. He was trying.
Back to action. Carolina led by a single point. The game was in the balance. Hicks posted up Johnathan Williams at the free throw line and received a bounce pass from Jackson. "I looked up at the score, and knew we just needed one," Hicks said. "At first, I thought Justin was going to shoot, and I would have gotten yelled at by Coach for posting up in the middle of the court at the free throw line, but I just took it, and I felt like I was scoring that."
He received the pass, then turned to face up Williams. With two dribbles, he got Williams on his hip. Jump stop. Rise. Hicks used his left hand to create space, hung in the air and kissed a one-handed shot off the glass. It gave the Tar Heels a three-point lead with 26 seconds to play.
Out of a timeout, Meeks stopped Williams-Goss with a block that created a run-out dunk for Jackson. Meeks intercepted a Przemek Karnowski pass. Berry made a free throw. Pinson got a rebound. Time expired, and Theo hurled the ball into the air just as he'd done two nights ago. The Tar Heels, a year later, had achieved their goal.
They'd talked about it from day one, and here they were, on day 364. National champions. Not only had they won Monday night; they'd done what they had to do to even position themselves to do so. Regular season ACC champions. Undefeated at home. Number one seed. All so that they could have this moment.
"I told those guys before the tournament," Pinson said. "I said, I think what's going to drive us, and what drove us the previous year, was we didn't want this journey to end, and we played for each other, and we played our hearts out, and as you can see, what's what happened this time. And when we play for each other and play our hearts out, nobody can beat us."
Take a moment and sit in this feeling, this afterglow of a national championship. These things don't happen often, really, these national championships. Not for Carolina. Not for any one team. There are 351 Division I men's college basketball teams. Sixty-eight make the NCAA Tournament. Only 35 different schools have won the 79 national championships awarded, and Carolina has now won six.
It's for these moments that we invest, emotionally, financially, to see these young men hoist a trophy on a stage, these young men that represent all of us. So, enjoy this for a while. In the coming weeks, some of them will graduate. Others will make decisions about the future. This 2016-17 group will never again take the floor as Tar Heels. They wanted their last game together to be on the first Monday in April, and they walked away champions. This is what it's all about.
Two weeks ago, ahead of his team's trip to Memphis for the Sweet 16, Roy Williams was asked if he found it a disadvantage in recruiting, competing against programs for the top players in the spring. While other coaching staffs already finished with their seasons can hit the trail, Williams' team was still playing, he and his coaching staff still busy preparing for more games.
Williams answered diplomatically, but, no, he did not find it to be a disadvantage. There are plenty of times in recruiting when coaches can't talk to high school athletes, and Williams does the legwork ahead of time so that he can concentrate on coaching in March. But why do you recruit top athletes? Why do you want them to join your roster? So that you can be playing for a national championship in March. Winning's the thing, after all.
"I'd rather still be playing," Williams said. "I may die before that recruit gets here. I'd rather live through the next game and win that one."
In the coming days, maybe even tomorrow, there will be way-too-early Top 25s for next year. NBA Draft projections, and maybe even Bracketology 2018. It's OK to ignore that for a while, because these Tar Heels just accomplished what only five Carolina teams before them have: they are the 2017 national champions. And even after next year's tournament, even five years from now, forever, they will be the 2017 national champions. There will always be a 2017 national champions banner hanging in the rafters.
Isaiah Hicks was reminded of this after the game. Championship hat on backwards, a piece of net looped around the snapback. You're going to be talking about this 10, 15, 20 years from now, Isaiah. What do you think?
"Right now, I guess we're just enjoying this," he said. "We're not really thinking about the future. We're just enjoying the present right now."
He deserves to enjoy the present. They all do. We do. 2017 national champions. Hail to the brightest star of all; bask in this shining moment.