During big moments, it feels like it always comes down to seconds. The last 4.7 of yesterday’s game were the hardest to stomach; buzzer beaters have not been friendly to my Heels or my heart. Those 4.7 seconds are going to stick in the minds of many when they think back to the 2016 championship game. But I’m choosing to remember the 5.2 ticks on the clock before that, when an off-balance Marcus Paige made that unbelievable three-pointer, tying a game when everything was on the line and there was still so much to prove.
If you’ve been a student at UNC in the past five years, it sometimes feels like all we’ve done is try to prove ourselves. Our predecessors made egregious decisions that shouldn’t go unnoticed, but I’d argue that current students and younger alumni have been dealt the hardest blows for poor choices that are not our own. These blows manifest themselves in simple ways. The bossman sitting across from you at a job interview jokes about paper classes, asking if you took any. Fans of rival teams scrawl “Go to class, Carolina” on giant poster boards, used as vitriolic props at games. It hurts. Just like those last 4.7 seconds did. It hurts because you know in your heart that snide remarks, just as with seconds on the shot clock, shouldn’t wholly define UNC, what it has been, or what it is.
That’s why I wanted the 2016 Tar Heels to win so badly. We all did. Of course you always want your team to win, but of any Carolina roster I’ve personally witnessed, these guys deserved it most. I’d say this loss hurt more than 2012, The Year of What Could’ve Been, when I was still at UNC.
We’ve faced scrutiny as students these past few years, but our basketball players have faced more. Here’s the thing, though: This team stuck it out. They dominated the glass, did their duty in the paint, and in plays that mattered most — like Paige’s last waltz in the big dance — they found ways to make their threes.
But it’s the character of this team that strikes me the most. Paige’s eloquence. Johnson’s passion. James’ silliness. Their strength was consistently doubted throughout the season, but they carried themselves with dignity while making us fall head over heels for their on-court charisma and press conference antics (Looking at you, Pinson). This team was one to root for. As Roy Williams said a couple of weeks back, “Nice guys want to win, too.”
In some ways, a championship win would’ve felt like a new chapter, one unmarred by criticism and the past, if only for One Shining Moment as streamers would cascade from the ceiling and each player would ascend the ladder to cut down the nets. But that’s a lot of pressure to put on a group of five guys who are all at least two years your junior — as freakish as their jump shots might be. Woe is the two-years-removed alumna who can’t let go despite having no athletic talent herself. But sometimes we have to let go.
Our lives are ruled by seconds and what we do with them. Unfortunately, try as we might, those seconds don’t always shake out in our favor. It stings. It really, really does. But to my dear boys in blue: If the way you’ve carried yourselves this season is any indiction of what’s ahead — regardless of where you might be heading — you’re still not done yet. We’re not done yet. Far from it.