It’s a cliche opinion, but it still rings extremely true in the final stretch of the year. In the past week alone, we’ve seen more Grayson Allen shenanigans and the confirmed extension of the neverending war between UNC and the NCAA. It’s a bad time.
It’s year-end list season, and instead of compiling the best moments of 2016, we here at SportsChannel 8 have decided to recap the worst to fully capture how the past 12 months have ravaged our beloved sports teams. It’s like a trip down memory lane, but if the trip included I-40 traffic at 5:15 p.m. on Friday and the memories were those of getting an itchy sweater in that Christmas present you swore would be a Nintendo 64.
Without further ado (and in no particular order), here is the fifth installment of our eight worst North Carolina sports moments of 2016.
4. UNC Loses the National Championship at the Buzzer
You had to know this was coming, right?
For many pundits across the country, Kris Jenkins’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer to win the national championship for Villanova would make any form of “top moments of 2016 list.”
For a large segment of North Carolina, however, this shot will haunt them for a lifetime.
The Tar Heels entered the 2015-16 season as favorites to capture their sixth (or seventh, depending on how petty you truly are) national title. The team returned its rotation from a Sweet 16 run, and it felt fated that seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson would finally lead their team to glory after a tumultuous four years muddied by an NCAA investigation that just wouldn’t die.
Add in UNC’s talented sophomore trio of Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson looking to make “The Leap” in their second year and steady junior bigs Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, and Carolina had the makings of a title team.
But, because this is Carolina basketball, questions of toughness and want-to lingered. UNC stumbled early (without Marcus Paige) at Northern Iowa and lost to what would assuredly be the first and only buzzer beater of the season at Texas.
The same flaws reemerged. Could this team rebound on the defensive end? Can Marcus Paige find his stroke again? Will any of UNC’s bigs step up and dominate?
The third question ultimately defined the season thanks to a loud and definitive answer by Johnson. The Pride of Orangeburg, S.C. posted consistent double-doubles and threw down patented Loud Screaming Rage Dunks, boiling over into a bonkers performance at Florida State early in ACC play.
Head coach Roy Williams’ four-year pet project finally gave him the results he hoped for, and Johnson easily established himself as both a first-round draft pick and UNC’s most important player.
Meanwhile, Berry began to establish himself as the heir to Paige’s point guard throne and Hicks provided steady minutes off the bench as a strong sixth man. The pieces were in place for North Carolina to hit its potential.
Then February happened.
The Tar Heels dropped four games in the shortest month of the year, losing their first two to Louisville and Notre Dame on the road before nearly ending Boston College’s #PursuitOfDP (we covered the actual ending earlier in this list). UNC regained some momentum in a Valentine’s Day massacre of Pittsburgh before blowing a game it dominated (and a magnificent Johnson performance) against Duke the next game.
Carolina beat the hell out of Miami and N.C. State in retaliation before losing a marquee game at Virginia on the 27th. The team’s ACC title hopes began to slip, and once again the team’s toughness came into question.
The Heels closed out the season by eking out wins over Syracuse on Senior Night and Duke in the season finale. That second win, in particular, felt like a breakthrough in its own right, as the seniors avoided going Reverse Hansbrough in Cameron Indoor and clinched the ACC regular season title. This group finally won a big one, and rolled into Washington, D.C. with its swagger back.
After a two-round bye, UNC decimated Pittsburgh and defending ACC Tournament champion Notre Dame to set up a rematch with the Cavaliers.
This game was just plain awesome. Two national title contenders traded punch after punch in the finals, combining stout defense with clutch baskets. Freshman Kenny Williams, in particular, showed a glimpse of what was to come in his sophomore season by providing valuable minutes of defensive effort against ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon.
Paige scored 9 of 10 UNC points for a second half spurt. Jackson and Berry pushed UNC’s lead to seven before the final media timeout. Hicks delivered the final blow from just within the free throw line to capture the ACC title outright.
A bumpy February appeared to set up a golden March, and the Tar Heels took a one-seed into March Madness.
UNC used is virtual homecourt advantage in Raleigh to fend off closer-than-expected challenges from Florida Gulf Coast and Providence. Johnson, in particular, stole the opening weekend for Carolina.
I miss him.
UNC advanced to the second weekend of the tournament and proceeded to obliterate Indiana in the Sweet 16 thanks to an appearance from Sophomore Marcus Paige.
The Elite Eight presented a rubber match between North Carolina and Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish proved far more game for this than their ACC semifinal collapse, but the defining moment of the game came from what looked like the future of Carolina basketball: Meeks outletting to Pinson for a lob to Hicks.
UNC sealed a trip back to the Final Four, where it faced a Syracuse team that nearly upset Carolina in on senior night in March.
The Orange kept it close for 30 minutes, but the Tar Heels pulled away over the final 10 to punch its ticket to the national title game, 83-66.
So the stage was set. North Carolina was 40 minutes away from hanging another banner after six years of people wanting them torn down. This group, after three years of finding every way not to reach its ceiling, found itself right where it expected to be in November. The only team standing between the Tar Heels and a title was the Villanova Wildcats.
Because of the bonkers ending, the 2016 title game will be remembered as one of the greatest of all time. It certainly had the most spectacular finish, but the game itself? If you enjoy both teams getting equally whistled for ticky-tack fouls down the stretch, have at it. I remember it being incredibly frustrating and difficult to set a flow because of so many succinct stoppages in the second half.
I’m also the saltiest person on the planet about this game, so maybe I’m just slightly biased.
Much like the ACC Title game, Carolina traded blows and leads with Nova, before seemingly taking control late in the first half. With time winding down, Jackson had a clear path to the basket off a Nate Britt steal, but Hart sent his layup back out, allowing Phil Booth to nail a free-throw line jumper to end the first half.
A four-point swing to end the half surely wouldn’t mean that much, right?
Villanova surged back in the second half, building a lead that hovered around the 7-point mark for the final 10 minutes. The Wildcats led by six against a desperate UNC team under the 2-minute mark, and for one last time, we got #SecondHalfPaige back.
Paige buries a corner 3-pointer with 1:30 to go.
Nova turns it over. Johnson scores. It’s a one-point game with 1:05 to play.
Villanova gets two back the next possession, and then Paige performs what can only be described as a magic act to put back his own miss in heavy traffic. One-point game again with 22.2 to play.
Hart gets fouled (I still hate the call, fight me) and knocks down both free throws. 13 seconds remaining.
Berry brings the ball up for Carolina. He finds Paige under immense pressure.
Burn in hell forever, 2016.
So a team that felt VERY Team of Destiny-like lost in the most heartbreaking way imaginable. A group of seniors whose four years were plagued with shadows from acts they never committed left empty-handed.
Again, I’m a biased UNC student, so this sucked in the absolute worst way. This was bar-none was the most traumatizing sporting event of my lifetime. Worse than Adam Vinateri beating the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII, worse than Austin Rivers, worse than any conceivable loss I could imagine.
Being on campus in Chapel Hill since 2013, it’s hard to explain to outsiders the range of emotions this team and student body endured. In this UNC bubble, we experienced senses betrayal and confusion after the Wainstein Report. We mourned the loss of the backbone of the basketball program and, to a large extent, the university itself when Dean Smith passed away. On the outside looking in, these are items that go through a two-to-three day news cycle and move on. Inside that bubble, it’s the dominant topic of conversation. It’s a very big portion of your life.
As a junior at UNC at that time, I was ready to rush Franklin the second Paige hit that double-clutch prayer. There was no possible way he and Johnson would be denied in their final act. There was no conceivable way Villanova could hang with a pissed off Carolina team that just narrowly avoided defeat in the final two minutes. There was no fathomable way that this team, one that would have folded down multiple possessions in the final two minutes even two months ago, would lose an extra five minute period.
But shit happens when you don’t guard the inbounder, and North Carolina never got that chance. Kris Jenkins nailed the shot, with the entire world watching, and his incredible story makes that moment even more special.
But, for this UNC class, as my great friend, former colleague and UNC alum Louis Fernandez put it best:
“Fairytales aren’t real. Not everyone gets their happily ever after.”
Maybe next year, Carolina.
Check back tomorrow for the next installment in the Bottom 8 North Carolina Sports Moments in 2016.