The Chaser: The 2016-17 North Carolina Tar Heels’ Season in Review

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We should all listen to our fathers more often.

I know I should, at least. Get my car’s oil changed. Take better care of my finances. Maybe don’t go too wild on Thursday nights in Chapel Hill.

That’s all standard stuff, but exactly one year ago from this writing, I didn’t listen. I couldn’t listen. I refused to listen.

You know what happened on April 4, 2016 by now. Paige. Jenkins. Heartbreak.

A few minutes after the reality had begun to set in, my dad shot me a text. I felt my phone vibrate next to me on the floor, but still sat petrified, watching every replay of the buzzer beater in stunned silence.

Villanova just ripped my heart right out of my chest, auditioning for a role as an antagonist in an Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom remake. I never moved a muscle. I just sat motionlessly on a hardwood floor, while tearful friends rapidly exited the watch party on Kenan Street, and tried to process it.

The one shot at a title in college, gone. The one chance at rushing Franklin and buying a before-and-after poster the next day, evaporated. The one opportunity to tell my children I was in Chapel Hill when Marcus Paige played the best three minutes of basketball I had ever seen, stolen.

I eventually picked up the phone and read the message. While I sat in pitiful despair, my father had a far more upbeat tone about the game.

“Well I had hoped we both would be celebrating tonight. Hasn’t really sunk in that we lost. I guess it is what it is. Still a Tar Heel forever!!!”

I immediately shot back.

this one will sting for a lifetime. legitimately. all I ever wanted. poof.”

Admittedly, that’s absurdly angsty and overdramatic, but in a shocked, inebriated state, that’s all I could muster. In that moment, we all felt that. Nothing, in our minds, could erase that feeling.

His response, again, reeked of positivity and typical fatherly wisdom.

“We never won a championship while I was in school. At least you have next year. I think we’ll have a good team. Who knows. Every year is a journey.

A parenting performance as clutch as the 3-point shots that preceded it.

In hindsight, I know he was hurting, too. That game stung him, a diehard Carolina fan, a devoted alum, and a father disappointed for his son.

A father disappointed for a son to whom he passed down decades of love for the greatest university on earth. A son he told stories to of his escapades in New Orleans when Michael Jordan hit the shot and Dean Smith finally captured his first national championship.

A son he bred to be a Tar Heel.

Even if he didn’t believe it (and who’s to say he didn’t?), he needed to say it. As a father, it was his duty to try to console the unconsolable, to stop the bleeding, to provide hope.

Naturally, because I am the idiot, unappreciative, painfully selfish son, I rejected it.

“duke has another title team coming in by the looks of that recruiting class. we’ll see. just stunned.”

I tell this personal anecdote to set the scene for the start of the 2016-17 college basketball season.

Those Duke Blue Devils, by far, stood out as the favorite to win the national championship. They returned the veteran core of their roster, added five-star talents (headlined by the 2016 class’ crown jewel in Harry Giles), and looked to get the bad taste of a disappointing 2015-16 season out of their mouths.

North Carolina, meanwhile, returned much of its 2015-16 roster, minus two important pieces: The team’s heart, Marcus Paige, and the team’s best player, Brice Johnson. More uncertainty grew when the team announced that junior swingman Theo Pinson would miss a large chunk of the season with a broken foot.

The makings were there for a potential final piece of what Duke student and good friend/writer Shaker Samman called the Carolina Sadness Sandwich: Duke wins in ’15, UNC loses in heartbreaking fashion in ’16, and Duke cruises to a sixth title in ’17.

The season tipped off, and the Tar Heels sprinted out of the gate against, to put it bluntly, inferior competition. They won convincingly against Tulane, Chattanooga, Long Beach State and Hawaii. Nice wins with minimal stumbles, no doubt. But enough to convince me to get my hopes up? It would take far more than that to trick me into trusting college basketball again.

And then Maui happened.

No team, at any point in the season, looked as dominant as the Tar Heels did in the Maui Invitational before Thanksgiving. They smoked the competition, winning by an average margin of 94-64. They stifled an exciting Oklahoma State team. They dismantled eventual-Sweet 16 participant Wisconsin in the second half. As Jay Bilas astutely pointed out, they looked like the best team in the country.

Their neighbors at Duke, meanwhile, sputtered out of the gate, hobbled by injuries to three star freshmen in Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden (Giles and Tatum eventually returned for the Blue Devils, while Bolden vanished and was never heard from ever again). The roles began to reverse in immediate fashion.

Carolina, naturally, carried on the momentum of Maui by falling flat on its face against Indiana. The Hoosiers exposed a fatal flaw in the Tar Heels: If you take Joel Berry out of the game, they become incredibly beatable. Berry shot 3-13 (including 1-6 from 3-point range), and UNC looked beatable for the first time all season.

This point was further proven when Berry sprained his ankle in a December game against Radford and missed a pair of games against Davidson and Tennessee. Carolina looked disjointed and completely different from the lineup with its starting point guard, squeaking out wins against game opponents in the Wildcats and Vols and stumbling into a matchup with Kentucky in Las Vegas.

And what a matchup it was. Berry returned to the lineup, and he and a blossoming Justin Jackson combined for 57 points against Big Blue.

The problem, of course, was that Carolina allowed freshman Malik Monk to explode for 47 points of his own.

Monk carried the Wildcats through a hellacious back-and-forth game, one that felt like it could be an Elite Eight matchup given the arena and atmosphere. The future lottery pick buried one last 3-pointer over Isaiah Hicks with 16.7 seconds left, and Kentucky escaped with a 103-100 win.

Then came the ACC opener at Georgia Tech on New Year’s Eve, where on one of the best bar nights of the year, North Carolina couldn’t buy a shot, and the inexperienced Yellow Jackets swarmed the Tar Heels for one last shocker in 2016.

The Heels followed that up with an overtime nail-biter at Clemson, when Berry put the entire team on his back and scored 31 points (including 7 made 3-pointers) to save UNC.

That served as a wake-up call and the start of a 7-game winning streak in which Carolina got Pinson back and blew out N.C. State by 51 points, beat emerging ACC contender Florida State in a track meet and picked up Roy Williams’ 800th career win against Syracuse. In this stretch, Jackson built an ACC Player of the Year campaign, scorching opposing defenses from outside and stepping in to make tough floaters. These wins all took place at home, and signified, to some, benefits of an unbalanced ACC schedule.

The Heels didn’t have to worry about receipts at Florida State and Syracuse, and got to play N.C. State twice. Their record hid their weak play away from Chapel Hill, evidenced by struggles at Boston College and a streak-snapping #BEATEMDOWN at the hands of Miami in Coral Gables.

A loss to Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium didn’t help the matter, as the Tar Heels clanked late free throws, shot poorly from outside and gave up a combined 64 points to Tatum, Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen. This came at a point where Duke legitimately seemed on the ropes, finally getting Coach K back on the bench after missing a month due to back surgery and losing three games in January.

Almost a full month later, the Tar Heels clinched the ACC regular season title, winning games (again, at home) against Virginia and Louisville, but looked horrendous in a quick two-day turnaround in Charlottesville against the Cavaliers. They had a chance to celebrate with the sweetest win of the season, hosting Duke on senior night with Michael Jordan in the house.

They did just that, pulling away late and using lights-out shooting by Berry and one of the best performances of Isaiah Hicks’ career to fend off their rivals.

North Carolina had the momentum back and the last say over their disjointed rivals… For all of six days.

The Tobacco Road rivals squared off one last time in the heart of the ACC: Brooklyn, New York. Carolina built a double-digit lead, but blew it in spectacular fashion once Berry sat due to foul trouble in the second half, and the Blue Devils rocked the Tar Heels to advance to the ACC Tournament Final, which they ultimately won.

And just like that, at the end of the regular season, we found ourselves right back where we started:

Duke looked like a well-oiled machine built to dominate March, and North Carolina found itself facing questions with little time to answer.

Selection Sunday came, and Carolina managed to barely grasp onto a one-seed, while the Blue Devils settled for a 2-seed in a region with Villanova. Pundits across the country speculated the two worst nightmares for anyone wearing light blue: A national title rematch with Villanova, or a national title grudge match against Duke.

March Madness arrived, and ghosts of the Tar Heels’ season appeared in almost every single game.

Texas Southern drew the unlucky 16-seed that had to face North Carolina in Greenville, SC, and the Heels played as if they’d traveled back to Maui. Justin Jackson drilled five 3-pointers, UNC ratcheted up the defense, and Carolina smoked the Tigers, 103-64. The only small blip from that game: A first half play where Joel Berry slipped and sprained his ankle. Just like against Radford in December.

The next day, Madness struck in the East Region: Wisconsin, the same team the Tar Heels demolished in Maui, stunned Villanova. There would be no rematch. The demon had been exorcised two weeks early.

Two days later, Arkansas stood across the court from UNC. The Tar Heels jumped out to an impressive 17-point lead early, and then stopped hitting shots. The Razorbacks clawed back, cutting the deficit to 5 at halftime, and taking the lead by the second media timeout of the second half. Carolina blew a big lead in a tournament game. Just like against Duke in March.

The Heels rallied, though, exploding for an 12-0 run over the final 3 minutes, realizing that a year’s worth of hard work was on the verge of being stopped embarrassingly short.

Later that night, after it appeared UNC would join Villanova on the couch instead of moving on to Memphis, it was Duke’s turn on the hot seat. The Devils played South Carolina in a virtual road game in Greenville, and made the mistake of keeping it close early. The Gamecocks pounced on Duke’s poor defense in the second half, stunning the Blue Devils and sparking this year’s Cinderella run to the Final Four. There would be no grudge match. The Devils had been exorcised two weeks early.

So the Tar Heels advanced to the second weekend, minus the two storybook foils to play in Phoenix, with two tough challenges, the first coming in the form of Butler in the Sweet 16. This game stood as the one aberration from the ghosts, as the Heels established a 20-point lead and never let it dip below 10 points. The UNC backcourt combined for 50 points, Berry looked to be getting back to 100% health, and North Carolina rolled to the Elite Eight to fight one more specter: Kentucky.

Carolina had the slight edge early, and then Berry stepped awkwardly on a drive, spraining his other ankle. In December, he came back for this game. In March, he almost left it early. Berry returned, clearly hobbled, and the Tar Heels led throughout the first half and into the midway point of the second half, but the Wildcats refused to die, held together by a red-hot performance by reserve Issac Humphries. They took the lead and expanded it to 5 with just more than 5 minutes to play. Roy Williams, in an unthinkable move, called timeout, and the Heels responded, going on another late 12-0 run to lead, 71-64, with less than a minute to play.

Kentucky rallied back, though, as De’Aaron Fox and Monk hit three 3-pointers in the final 49 seconds to tie the game. In a scene eerily reminiscent to Houston in 2016, Monk hit the game-tying shot while being heavily defended with less than 10 seconds left. Kennedy Meeks inbounded to Pinson, who found a man yet to be mentioned in this post: Luke Maye.

This time, the roles were reversed. Instead of the Wildcats beating North Carolina at the buzzer after the Heels fought all the way back, it would be UNC burying the rallying Wildcats in the final second. Maye drained the shot, assured himself free drinks for the rest of his life, and sent Carolina back to the Final Four. Two demons, this time, vanquished.

One team stood between UNC and a chance to play one more time on the first Monday of April: The Oregon Ducks. Carolina avoided the Ducks (or should we say the Ducks avoided Carolina?) in Maui, and now these two teams would play in primetime in Phoenix in the national semifinal. The game itself was ugly, with both teams struggling to make shots (a theme consistent for every game at University of Phoenix Stadium). Meeks, however, shined his brightest, turning in a 25 point, 14 rebound masterpiece. Jackson put together one last vintage ACC Player of the Year performance, knocking down floaters and contested 3-pointers, and UNC found itself up late with a chance to seal the game with free throws.

The foul line, just like at Cameron Indoor, was not kind to Carolina. The Tar Heels shot 0-4 from the line in the final 10 seconds, but clutch offensive rebounds, including the game-sealing one from Meeks, put the Ducks away and allowed Carolina to survive by a single point to advance to the title game.

And for the second straight year, an experienced group wearing navy blue with a generic mascot stood between North Carolina and a national title. The Gonzaga Bulldogs, led by a pair of 7-footers in the paint and potential national player of the year Nigel Williams-Goss, might as well have been Villanova that Monday night: A team that critics doubted based on recent postseason struggles, representing a poor conference and hungry to prove it belonged.

Another ugly game ensued, with Jackson falling ice cold for UNC and Berry doing the heavy lifting. The teams traded leads in the second half in a game similar to 2016’s final: Tons of whistles, physical play, and still the suspense as neither team could pull away.

With 1:55 to play, Williams-Goss hit a tough jumper to put Gonzaga up, 65-63, and all of Chapel Hill held its breath.

Here we go again.

On the other end, Pinson found Jackson with a perfect pass to spring a go-ahead 3-point play. Williams-Goss missed another jumper (while all of us held our collective breath), and the Tar Heels just couldn’t quite hit the dagger. Berry missed a 3-pointer. Meeks, as he did all March long, grabbed the offensive board. The ball was lost, and a jump ball was called, the arrow favoring North Carolina.

After the play reset, Hicks, who had struggled for the entire tournament, and whose outstretched arm just couldn’t reach Kris Jenkins’ buzzer beater a year earlier, willed a ridiculous shot into the basket to stretch the lead to 3 points. On the other end, Meeks blocked Williams-Goss, passed to Berry, and Berry sprung Jackson for a wide-open dunk with 12 seconds left.

The game was effectively over. The North Carolina Tar Heels, a year later, were national champions.

If Kris Jenkins hit The Shot, Jackson’s dunk was The Chaser. The sting of 2016 washed away, replaced by the sweet ecstasy of victory. The bitter taste of defeat masked by the euphoria of the ultimate success. The gag-inducing toxins of disappointment, soothed by redemption.

We huddled around the television to watch the clock hit 0.0, because if this team taught us anything, it’s that there is no such thing as a safe lead. I couldn’t tell you if any free throws were made. I couldn’t tell you who took Gonzaga’s last shot. The details didn’t matter. The horn sounded, and the race began.

In my four years at UNC, I’ve morphed from a (bad) cross-country runner into a couch potato. I couldn’t tell you the last time I actually jogged around town, but I can guarantee you it wasn’t in 2017.

I could have won the Boston Marathon with the speed and endurance of my dash to Franklin Street. Each step felt increasingly weightless, like a year-long burden had been lifted from my shoulders. I stopped just once, right next to a rapidly emptying Pantana Bob’s on Rosemary Street, to wait for my friends to catch up. After waiting approximately 4.7 seconds, I resumed the sprint without them, wanting to soak in every second of the mob.

Instead of wiping tears off their faces, students wiped sweat, and instead of sitting on a cold hardwood floor on Kenan Street, I sat on a lifelong friend’s shoulders. He let me down, and I told him “four years later,” but we’ve really unknowingly waited 14 years for this, since we were Lincolnton Optimist teammates.

Fireworks burst. Fires burned. Friends hugged. It was perfect.

I escaped the near-riot without harm, honing my sights on He’s Not Here and sliding in before a line grew. I drank Blue Cups with current friends, sorely missed alums, and complete strangers. I stood in line for the bathroom downstairs with a group of European students, singing along to soccer chants without the slightest clue of the words. I ordered one last beer and sat outside until the bar employees forced me to leave an hour after closing.

The whole time, I checked my phone, to no avail. The mass of humanity in the bar and on the street canceled out any opportunity of a cell phone signal, which worked partially in my favor, because I got to live in that moment instead of sending out bad tweets.

But there was one person I needed to text. The same man that tried to lift my spirits 364 days earlier.

Around 2:15, the bar started to clear out, and the “1X” on the top left corner of my phone turned into “Verizon LTE” once again. Texts flooded my phone, including a pair from the old man himself in a group chat with my sister, another Carolina alum.

“OMG OMG OMG! National Champions!!”

“Storm Franklin but be safe!”

Of course, Dad was right. He always is.

Every year is a journey. But the destination doesn’t have to be the same.