Off the cuff: North Carolina had a terrific season. Ups - like the regular-season ending win in Durham and the ACC Tournament title - and some downs - like the early loss to Northern Iowa and the home loss to Duke.
Certainly the season-ending loss in the NCAA Title game was heartbreaking but it was such a classic game that will go down in basketball lore, that it's hard to call it a down. Disappointing, yes. But the Heels have nothing to be ashamed of.
That being said, while no one wants to blame a season-ending loss on one or two bad plays or one or two players, there were some key moments that hurt.
The missed layup by Justin Jackson at the end of the first half that led to a bucket cutting the Tar Heels lead to five at the half was big.
The three quick fouls on Kennedy Meeks in the second half halted any momentum the Heels might have had.
Down five at 69-64 with 2:44 to go, Jackson, who failed to score in the second half, uncharacteristically missed two free throws.
Finally, Isaiah Hicks and Joel Berry got tangled up with each other and Hicks didn't do enough to get out on Kris Jenkins as he shot the game-winner.
Senior Brice Johnson, who scored 14, didn't get the ball enough but he did all he could.
Marcus Paige, also in his last game as a Tar Heel, had a great second half and finished with a game-high 21 points and six assists.
What makes the loss so heartbreaking is that Johnson, Paige and Joel James won't have another chance to win a title and the Tar Heels likely won't be favored to get to another title game next season.
But stranger things have happened as Tar Heels experienced in the last five seconds of the season.
While Marcus Paige's three that pushed the lead back up to 10 in the second half was a huge play. Perhaps the most important part of the game came in the first half.
At the under 8 minute mark of the first half, North Carolina took the lead with a nifty pass from Justin Jackson to Kennedy Meeks who scored and was fouled. After the free throw, the Heels were up 21-18 . They never trailed again.
During the 9-0 run that created some separation, Carolina was able to split the zone to get short jumpers, layups or follow shots. During one stretch in the first half, the UNC defense held Syracuse to only two of 13 shots. During another stretch, Syracuse didn’t score for more than three minutes.
After missing a slew of three pointers, North Carolina got back to its game plan to attack inside and the Tar Heels edged away with a 39-28 halftime lead. The Tar Heels missed all 10 three pointers in the half but they hit 68 percent of their two-point shots in the first half. The four big men combined for 27 points, including nine from Kennedy Meeks, who did not missed a shot.
It's good to see Meeks coming up big for the Tar Heels.
Carolina Football: Golden anniversary of a redeeming 50-0 victory over Duke.
Carolina Football: Excerpts from an article on the history of the Carolina-Duke rivalry.
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Heels end season in heartbreaking way
In what will go down as one of the most dramatic endings to an NCAA National Championship game, two three pointers in the last five seconds decided it. After UNC’s Marcus Paige tied the score on a three with 4.7 seconds left, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit a long three at the buzzer to give Villanova a 77-74 victory and the NCAA title. (04/04)
Unable to get inside, North Carolina still led 39-34 at the half after hitting seven threes. In the second half, Carolina went cold. On two different occasions, the Tar Heels went almost four minutes without scoring. After shooting over 50 percent in the first half, the Heels managed just 34 percent in the second half.
Meanwhile, Villanova, who shot 58 percent in the second half, went on a 19-7 run to take a five-point lead and increased the margin to 10 at 67-57 with 5:29 to go.
During a timeout, and down 10, UNC coach Roy Williams made the team a promise.
“I promised them if they did what I told them to do, we’d have a chance to win at the end,” Williams said with his voice cracking. “I just wish I could have done a little bit more.”
The Tar Heels did indeed come back and had a chance. Two free throws by Joel Berry, who scored 20 points, and a dunk by Brice Johnson cut the deficit to 67-61 with 4:11 left. A Berry three-point shot with 3:46 left cut the margin to three at 67-64.
Villanova’s Phil Booth, who scored a career-high 20 points off the bench, stopped the run with a big fade-away jumper in the lane to make it 69-64 with 3:09 left.
Down 70-64, UNC scored five straight on a three by Paige and a short jumper by Brice Johnson to cut the lead to 70-69 with 1:10 left. Nova’s Booth hit a couple of free throws after a controversial foul on UNC’s Isaiah Hicks that drew “ahs” and “boos” from the crowd when they watched the replay in the NRG Stadium.
Paige wouldn’t give up as he missed a driving layup, got the rebound and hit a reverse layup with 24 seconds left to once again draw the Heels to within a point at 72-71.
Villanova melted the clock until Johnson could foul Josh Hart but Hart hit both free throws to make it 74-71 with 14 seconds left.
That’s when Paige made perhaps the most remarkable shot of the season for Carolina when he double clutched in mid air and shot a three as his body was coming back down to earth. It went in with 4.7 seconds left to tie it at 74-all.
After a Villanova timeout, the Tar Heels set up a press so that the Wildcats would have to take it the length of the court. That’s just what happened as Ryan Arcidiacono dribbled up court, flipped it to Jenkins who shot the ball from the right side of the top of the key with less than a second to play. UNC’s Hicks was converging on him but couldn’t get there in time.
“When we were down 10, we believed we were going to win,” Paige said. “Kris (Jenkins) is their best three-point shooter. He got a pretty a clean look for whatever reason.”
The reason is that Hicks and Berry, covering Acridiacono, got into each other a bit and Hicks didn’t get out quick enough to bother the shot. “I think every shot’s going in, and this one was no different,” Jenkins said.
UNC’s Berry said, “I was just hoping it was still in his hand when the buzzer went off. It was tough feeling that confetti fall and it’s not for you.”
Paige felt that if they could have defended the shot, the Tar Heels were going to win in overtime. “I told the team that we’ve got 4.7 seconds to play defense and this game is ours because no matter what, we were going to win in overtime,” he said. “That’s just how the game was going to go because we had clawed back from down 10.”
He said nobody understands how much the Tar Heels wanted that game. With tears in his eyes, barely able to get the words out, Paige added, “At some point tonight I’m going to take this this jersey off and never be able to put it back on.”
Williams said he doesn’t think he’s ever coached a player tougher than Paige, who had a game-high 21 points. In the locker room, Williams told the team that he couldn’t take away their hurt but that he loves them. “And I wished I could have helped them more,” he said.
North Carolina outrebounded Villanova 36-23 but Villanova’s defense put the Wildcats in a position to win the game at the end. They contested every shot and every pass, and collapsed on the inside men when they got the ball.
Johnson, who was averaging more than 20 points a game in the tournament, finished with just 14 points and Kennedy Meeks, who had a resurgence in the tournament, finished with just four points while hitting just one of eight shots.
Jackson, who hit three three-pointers in the first half, failed to score in the second half and missed two free throws as the Tar Heels were trying to start their comeback.
Another key turning point came at the end of the first half. Following a Jackson three that put UNC up 39-32, the Heels came up with a turnover and were going in for a layup with seconds left. But Jackson, who thought he was fouled, missed. Nova got it up court quickly and Phil Booth got open in a lane for a jumper with a second left. So, the game went from UNC being up by a game-high nine to the margin being just five at the break.
In the end the Tar Heels lost by three and gave up five points in less than two seconds – two at the end of the first half and three at the end of the game.
“That coach out there that’s cuttin’ down those nets is really proud of his team,” a teary Williams said. “But I wouldn’t trade my team for anybody’s.”
North Carolina, winners of the ACC regular season and the ACC Tournament, ends its season at 33-7.
UNC too much for 'Cuse, on to the finals
North Carolina survived a poor three-point shooting night and a Syracuse run in the second half to beat the Orange going away, 83-66, and advance to the NCAA championship game against Villanova Monday night. (04/02)
It will be the 10th time that a North Carolina team has played for the national championship with the last title coming in 2009.
Against Syracuse, the Tar Heels missed 11 straight three pointers but they were able to get the ball inside throughout the game. Despite hitting only 4 of 17 threes, the Heels shot 54 percent for the game, including 60 percent in the second half. Carolina ended with 50 points in the paint, including 16 from Brice Kennedy and 15 from Kennedy Meeks. Swingman Justin Jackson also got inside several times and ended with 16 points, including 12 in the second half.
“We weren’t playing our game at the beginning,” said guard Joel Berry, who finished with a game-high 10 assists. “We couldn’t get it uptempo. We weren’t shooting well so we tried to penetrate and get it inside.”
Getting inside for easy baskets, the Tar Heels eventually wore down the Orange, who tried to pressure and trap when they got down big but they appeared out of gas. Carolina repeatedly split the traps or got fouled and hit free throws, and broke the press for fast break dunks and layups.
In the first half, there were six ties and six lead changes but Carolina actually started to take control with its best player, Brice Johnson, on the bench with two fouls.
With the score tied at 18, the Tar Heels went on a 9-0 run highlighted by a Kennedy Meeks old-fashioned three-point play and a transition jumper by Marcus Paige. Carolina never trailed again after getting up 27-18 although the game was closer than the final score would indicate.
The Tar Heels took their first double-digit lead of the game on a highlight reel driving layup by Theo Pinson with 1:20 left in the half, making it 37-27. Carolina upped the lead to a first-half high 12 points at 39-27 before settling for a 39-28 halftime lead.
In the second half, Carolina upped the margin to 17 points at 57-40 with 12:26 left on a Berry layup. But Syracuse went on a 10-0 run, highlighted by three-point shots by Trevor Cooney and Malachi Richardson, to cut the lead to just seven with 9:51 to go.
UNC coach Roy Williams got as mad as he’s been all season during the run as Carolina turned the ball over two of three times down the court, and then watched a missed shot roll between several Tar Heels before a Syracuse player came up with it and scored.
“I screamed as loud at my players as I have all year,” Williams said. “My pulse went up quite a bit.”
But Paige finally hit Carolina’s first three of the game and it came at an opportune time, giving the Heels a 60-50 lead and starting a 10-3 run that helped the Heels overcome the Syracuse run.
“I got really excited when he hit that three,” Williams said. “It couldn’t be more appropriate that it was Marcus Paige who did that for us.”
During Carolina’s responding run, Theo Pinson canned a three from the top of the key and Meeks aggressively scored after two tips to give the Heels control of the game again at 67-53.
It never got closer than 11 the rest of the way as Carolina worked the margin up to a game-high 19 points with a little more than a minute to go.
© 2015 CB3media Cary, NC
Heel Prints reviewed each UNC game
As a student sports editor years ago, prior to the season, Clifton Barnes predicted a national championship for the Tar Heels and indeed they won. In fact he wrote his lede paragraph for the national championship game almost a year early. He regrets that he didn't keep a journal after each game. He kept a journal after each game of the 2007-2008 season and you can reach them here. At the request of readers, he has kept up his journal of each game ever since. He also has written about UNC baseball and wrote an analysis after each 2008 UNC football game.
Editor's Note: HeelPrints chronicled the UNC basketball, baseball and football seasons for 2008 and 2009. Since the vast majority of comments I get about the site relate to basketball and since this isn't a paying job for me, I decided to limit my coverage and analysis to basketball. Baseball and football will remain archived and if I have comments or opinions I want to make on those or any other sports at UNC, I will make them here on the front page and then archive them in the corresponding sports section. Thanks for all the positive comments I have received about the site. Should I get sponsorship in the future, I will reconsider adding baseball and football again. Ironically, my favorite sports to watch in person are baseball and football. But my first connections to UNC came from watching Dean Smith's basketball teams on TV or listening to them on the radio in the days before all the games were televised. It should come as no surprise that people pay more attention to the basketball coverage. Thanks for your interest in this site.