Eliminated unceremoniously from ACC Tournament, North Carolina hopes to pick itself up in NCAA Tournament, where Tar Heels face Texas Southern Friday. (Photo by David Welker/Atlantic Coast Conference, used with official permission)
Moments after a demoralizing loss to bitter adversary Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament semifinals clouded the prospects of even the most rabid North Carolina fans, Roy Williams took to the podium at Barclays Center for his postgame press conference and attempted to put things into perspective.
"My teams have taken me to eight Final Fours," the head coach began, hinting that all was not lost in Chapel Hill even after UNC saw a 13-point lead vanish in a combination of foul trouble and an offense he deemed, in his own words, stagnant. "Six of those times, we lost in the semifinals of the conference tournament," he added, including the Tar Heels' 2004-05 and 2008-09 seasons, both of which ended with national championship celebrations.
"There's a lot still to play for," a persistent Williams continued. "I'm not trying to make anybody mad, but our final goal was not to win the ACC Tournament. Our final goal was to play on the last Monday night and win the game there."
With that, UNC (27-7) has been able to hone in on the NCAA Tournament in their weeklong hiatus since their last contest, and will have been able to channel their energy into defeating Texas Southern, the No. 16 seed in the South Regional tasked with stopping the top-seeded Tar Heels in a 4 p.m. tipoff from the BSW Arena in Greenville, South Carolina. And after how last year's experience in the field of 68 ended, with Kris Jenkins' buzzer-beating three-pointer swishing through the rim and lifting Villanova to an improbable national title, one word is on the minds of UNC: Redemption, which is also the title of the group text message thread among the team.
"I think it's two ways," said Williams of how last season has motivated his team. "The way that last year ended, meaning the final shot, that we lost the national championship game, I'm hoping that motivated them. We talked about it, providing some motivation or fuel to work extremely hard in the offseason; and then when practice started, I said it's motivation for that reason, and it's motivation because what we did last year was great."
The chance to erase the quick exit from last week's conference tournament could not have come at a better time for Justin Jackson, who admittedly said he put too much pressure on himself in the wake of being named the ACC Player of the Year. The junior forward has not changed much about his routine, merely turning the page and putting one game behind him.
"My confidence isn't gone," he stated. "It was four games that I haven't shot the ball well, and that's all it is. I'm still going to shoot the ball the same way, still going to be aggressive, still going to do everything I've been doing all year. It's not like, all of a sudden, the world is ending."
One other focal point for the Tar Heels is point guard Joel Berry II, whose fourth personal foul early in the second half of last Friday's Duke game changed the complexion of the entire second half. With the junior floor general on the bench, UNC was outscored by a 45-28 margin by the eventual conference champion Blue Devils, and much like his fellow All-American candidate of a teammate, he will be rejuvenated to prove his last time out was an aberration.
"Everybody has bad games, everybody struggles," said Jackson. "But Joel, he definitely has the same confidence that he's always had. He's the exact same Joel Berry that everybody's talked about, everybody's praised, and he's definitely deserving of all that praise. He's going to go out there and play like it whenever the game starts."
The bittersweet reminders of how last season ended will not soon be forgotten as UNC begins its latest run through March, nor will their journey to the championship stage, one the Tar Heels' coach can be replicated in the first of six steps Friday afternoon.
"Everybody in the country would have loved to have done what we did last year," said Williams. "There was only one team that enjoyed it more than we did, so I think, just for me talking to the kids and reminding them how much fun it was last year, let's try to do that again."