Sunday, April 9, 2017

This UNC championship team deserves not only a seat, but their own table

As North Carolina celebrated its sixth national championship, this particular title team may have been most impressive of any prior Tar Heel title-winning outfit. (Photo by Jeffrey A. Camarati/Tar Heel Photo)

One year ago this weekend, we were still basking in the glow of an epic NCAA Tournament finish, with Kris Jenkins' buzzer-beating three-pointer concluding Villanova's thrilling ascent to the college basketball zenith at the expense of the North Carolina Tar Heels.

In the hours leading up to the opening tip in Houston on April 4, 2016, much had been made of UNC; led by two unforgettable seniors in Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, completing the final chapter in its quest to earn a seat at the table alongside the five other Tar Heel squads whose legacies were defined by the hardware each was able to return to Chapel Hill.

The 1957 team, led by native New Yorker Frank McGuire and his Big Apple-centric roster, was heralded for its perfect 32-0 campaign and back-to-back triple-overtime victories to claim the crown. The late great Dean Smith scored his first of two ultimate triumphs a quarter-century later over Georgetown in that timeless classic at the Superdome, where on a team with James Worthy and Sam Perkins in its arsenal, a freshman by the name of Jordan fired the game-winning salvo that would be merely a precursor to the illustrious career he would go on to author at the professional level.

UNC's 1993 outfit had the unmistakable talent of Lynch, Montross, Phelps and Williams; all of whom enjoyed a long life at the next level, but in many ways, was overshadowed by Chris Webber's gaffe of calling the timeout his Michigan team did not have, prompting the technical foul that iced the Tar Heels' third climb up the ladder with a pair of scissors in hand. A dozen years and three successors to Smith later, Dean's former assistant, Roy Williams, claimed his first taste of championship glory when the Heels; paced by a trio of future NBA lottery picks in Sean May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants, fended off an Illinois team that came to the final stage of the season in St. Louis at 37-1 on the year and owners of an equally gifted basketball team in their own right.

A fifth national title followed four years later with arguably the greatest assembly of talent in the country that year. With seven future NBA players and every first-place vote in the Top 25 poll to begin the season, UNC's 2009 championship and the dominance that came with it was to be expected. To an extent, the 2015-16 Tar Heels drew the closest parallel to that group, a team widely perceived to be the best in the nation, and therefore the prohibitive favorites to win it all, or so it seemed until Ryan Arcidiacono handed the basketball to Jenkins in the final 4.7 seconds, his attempt from the right arc clearing the outstretched right arm of Isaiah Hicks and splashing through the NRG Stadium net.

With that, the latest incarnation of North Carolina basketball had a backstory, a chip on its shoulders, a cause célèbre for which to stand vindicated. Not just for the memory of Johnson, an All-American whose improvement between his junior and senior seasons was truly something to behold, or for Paige, the articulate and admirable point guard whose efforts on the court were as exemplary as those that allowed him to graduate with honors as a double major. Not just for Paige's double-clutching three-pointer that tied the championship game before Villanova's final heroics, but for one reason first and foremost.

Redemption.

The desire, the need, to quench the thirsts of both team and fans, thirsts that had gone unsatiated for seven months between the final buzzer in Houston and the beginning of the now-concluded 2016-17 season. The need to right the wrong of last April, to take back what had been taken away from them. And this Tar Heel team did just that, exorcising the demons six days ago. But it was not easy, nor would anyone say it would be.

In many ways, last Monday's contest, one that ensured a new championship banner would occupy a permanent residence in the Smith Center rafters after UNC's 71-65 victory over Gonzaga, was reminiscent of the fight Williams and his team had endured both on and off the hardwood. Beginning with the dark clouds hovering over the program from the NCAA investigation into alleged academic fraud to coping with the loss to Villanova, to the times where the Tar Heel offense looked nonexistent; such as their late-season loss at Virginia where the 43 points registered were an all-time low in Williams' 14-year tenure at his alma mater, or the second half of the ill-fated ACC tournament semifinal against Duke that turned on a dime when Joel Berry II was whistled for his fourth foul, UNC scratched and clawed for everything they earned. They fought hard, and did it in ways one would not normally expect.

Down five in the final three minutes of regulation against Arkansas and on the brink of a tournament exit that would rival Villanova in terms of sheer disappointment, the Heels clamped down defensively to shut the Razorbacks out down the stretch, ending the game on a 12-0 run but gaining more credit for their suffocating pressure at the most opportune of times. Then there was the South Regional final against Kentucky, one where UNC again trailed by five before yet another 12-0 run. Only that time, John Calipari's Wildcats fired back and tied the game in the final seconds. But Williams, who has faced criticism for his penchant of eschewing timeouts, let his team play on, and was rewarded when Luke Maye's jumper brought college basketball's richest tradition back to the Final Four.

The drive, and the hunger, would only grow stronger once it arrived in Arizona.

In an up-and-down national semifinal against Oregon that was anything but a walk in the park, UNC ran the gamut of emotions on polar opposites of the spectrum: Early jitters and adversity compounded by lackluster shooting, then confidence when the game seemed to go their way as it wound toward its culmination, only for tension to seep in when their two-possession lead was trimmed to just one point.

Then, two rebounds defined a defensive effort and a will to win that would not be upstaged, even in the face of four missed free throws. First, Theo Pinson's board that was tipped back to Berry, then the unrelenting spirit of Kennedy Meeks to corral Berry's errant attempts at the charity stripe, fulfilling a vow the senior forward made before the game that he would take it upon himself to guarantee the Tar Heels would have a date with destiny.

In their final battle, it was Berry; the point guard fighting the effects of two sprained ankles suffered during UNC's run to the championship game, who took center stage, sparking the offense on a night where the rims were unforgiving more often than not. But through the struggle and for all the desire to exact revenge against the basketball gods for the cruel fate inflicted upon them twelve months prior, UNC still trailed by two points with less than two minutes to play in regulation.

Then, one last time, the Tar Heels dug deeper, fought harder, pushed stronger.

Justin Jackson's three-point play started the turn of events, giving UNC a lead it would never relinquish. Meeks' extension to secure a loose ball inside the final minute, as controversial as it may have been, forced a tie-up with the possession arrow in his team's favor, giving the Heels a new lease on life that was converted on a running jump hook shot by Hicks with 25 seconds left. Finally, Meeks stood tall once more, rejecting a drive by Nigel Williams-Goss. Berry scooped up the ball and soon passed to a streaking Jackson, his emphatic dunk sealing an ending 365 days in the making.

Suddenly, the images from that night in Houston underwent a 180-degree turn. Now there was Berry, wrestling with himself to remain composed when calling a timeout. There was Hicks, the big man whose offensive woes were put to rest with his runner moments before the dunk by Jackson, whose primal yell could be best described as the cry of a conqueror. It all ended with UNC being handed its sixth national championship trophy, with each player commemorating the experience with a piece of the net to treasure forever.

"At the end, when you're watching your kids jump around; and the excitement, the thrill that they have, there's no better feeling in the world as a coach," Williams surmised in his postgame press conference Monday night, which had turned into Tuesday morning back home in Chapel Hill.

"We did it," said Pinson. "And that's something I'll never forget."

Before and after the game that placed 2017 in the same room as 1957, 1982, 1993, 2005 and 2009, five words crept back into the UNC conversation.

A seat at the table.

It was the topic of a letter penned by Paige to his remaining brothers in arms, one that was showcased on The Players' Tribune the night before the Final Four began. Ultimately, it was the most enduring payoff to come with standing atop the mountain of college basketball.

But this North Carolina team, one aytpical of its championship-winning brethren, earned its place with a spirit and character forged not through preseason rankings or McDonald's All-Americans or overpowering their competition; but rather, the heart of a champion uncrowned willed them to the finish line.

This North Carolina team proved itself worthy of more than a seat amid legendary company. They proved themselves worthy of an exclusive table, front and center among greatness.

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