Tar Heels begin moving forward after falling short of title
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) North Carolina started the year with a No. 1 ranking, swept the Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles and battled to the final Monday night of the season to play for the national championship.
The Tar Heels fell one heart-breaking shot short.
Now UNC goes into the offseason trying to move forward from the stinging 77-74 loss to Villanova on Kris Jenkins' buzzer-beating 3-pointer - which overshadowed a double-pump tying 3 by UNC's Marcus Paige seconds earlier - that capped a season in which the veteran Tar Heels slowly became the tough-minded bunch coach Roy Williams had pushed them to be.
''We had a great run,'' Paige said Tuesday to an estimated crowd of more than 3,000 fans who gathered outside the Smith Center to greet the team on its return to campus from Houston. ''That's not quite the way we wanted to end it. . A little bit later we're going to be really proud about what we did. And I hope you guys are proud of us.''
The Tar Heels (33-7) won their first ACC regular-season title since 2012, their first ACC Tournament since 2008 and reached their first Final Four since 2009. Along the way, senior Brice Johnson became a first-team Associated Press All-American. Their seven losses came by a combined 25 points, none by more than six.
Now they're headed into an uncertain offseason on a couple of fronts.
The Tar Heels are wrapping up yet another season played amid the shadow of an NCAA investigation into the school's long-running academic fraud scandal touching athletes in numerous sports. The NCAA hit the school with five largely broad-based charges last May, including lack of institutional control. That case is on hold while the NCAA considers whether to revise or amend its Notice of Allegations used to specify violations as it reviews additional information reported by the school in August, and is likely months from resolution.
Whatever happens, North Carolina's roster might have a different look next season.
The Tar Heels will lose Johnson, Paige and Joel James, but it is unclear how many players might declare for the NBA draft now that rules make it easier to test the waters and still keep eligibility - as long as they don't hire an agent.
If UNC's nucleus returns intact, the Tar Heels would have three starters back in rising senior Kennedy Meeks, along with rising juniors Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II - who was on crutches and wearing a protective boot on his left foot Tuesday with an injury apparently suffered the night before.
They would also have experienced reserves in ACC sixth man of the year Isaiah Hicks, fellow rising senior Nate Britt and top defender Theo Pinson as a junior.
UNC is adding a recruiting class headlined by 6-foot-11 McDonald's All-American Tony Bradley from Bartow, Florida, as well as guards Seventh Woods (Columbia, South Carolina) and Brandon Robinson (Lithia Springs, Georgia). Both Scout and Rivals list UNC in the top 10 of their national recruiting rankings.
Then there is the 65-year-old Williams, who heard plenty of questions last week at the Final Four about when he might retire. Williams has dismissed those questions as well as ones about his health, characterizing the bout of vertigo that forced him from a February win at Boston College as nothing more than a rare public episode with a condition he's had for two decades dating to his time at Kansas.
Down the stretch Williams looked like a coach who still has that same competitive fire.
''Needless to say, it was about 14, 15 hours ago there was a huge disappointment to us,'' Williams told fans at Tuesday's gathering. ''At the same time, these guys gave us an unbelievable run. For the last five weeks, it's been the most fun I've ever had as a college basketball coach.''
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