After battling criticism and evading scandal talk all year, UNC’s arduous season comes to a bitter, painful ending
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HOUSTON — Twenty, 30, 40 minutes later, none of it made sense. Especially the last five seconds. More specifically, the last 4.7 seconds, the worst 4.7 seconds. The North Carolina basketball players sat in silence, slumped over in their chairs, hands covering their faces, towels draped over their heads. Tears rolled down their cheeks.
The Tar Heels had just played in a final among the most epic in the history of the NCAA tournament. Marcus Paige, their senior guard, their emotional pulse, had made a shot that defied both common sense and physics, a twisting, double-clutch three-pointer from the right wing that he released off-balance while leaning forward, legs splayed. It ranked among the single greatest shots in the history of a tourney defined by shining moments. “I was 99% sure we were going to win the game,” Paige said. “We just had to get through those 4.7 seconds.”
They did not. Their shining moment was crushed in those 4.7 seconds, by a defensive lapse and failing to notice Villanova junior forward Kris Jenkins as he trailed behind the play, coming open on the right wing, his shot deep and true and steady and released just before the final horn.
The game ended, 77–74, in favor of the Wildcats, and it was a microcosm of North Carolina’s season with the worst imaginable twist. These Tar Heels were tabbed as the No. 1 team heading into the season and the favorite in the title game. They stumbled in both, righted themselves in both, became the mighty team that everyone had expected in both. The only difference, the difference between a sixth national title and the most silent locker room in sports, is that during its season UNC salvaged its losses and won the regular-season ACC title and the conference tournament.
The Tar Heels almost did the same thing Monday night. Almost. Almost came back. Almost rescued a season that needed yet another resuscitation. Almost. Except for those damn 4.7 seconds.
Afterward, as forward Kennedy Meeks bawled, his teammate, senior forward Brice Johnson, pushed through a throng of reporters and placed a hand tenderly on Meeks’s head. Meeks choked out half-sentences between sobs as tears rolled down both cheeks. “For it to end like this ...” and “one of the worst feelings” and “keep the faith.”
Assistant coach Hubert Davis couldn’t even make it into the locker room. He sat outside the open door, in a metal folding chair, saying nothing, eyes trained straight ahead. Roy Williams, the Tar Heels’ coach, Davis’s mentor, eventually joined him. The men just sat there, in the folding chairs, surrounded by brick walls, their eyes vacant and red. They didn’t look at each other. They didn’t say a word.
Just one day earlier Davis had stood five feet from where he sat and said, “The thing I can’t imagine is walking into the gym and these seniors not coming out of that tunnel for practice. That’s going to be a sad day.”
It’s not far off, someone told him. One more game. One more night. “It’s not,” he said. “That’s horrible. I wish I could be around this group forever.”
Paige wiped his tears with a towel. He dropped his head. He sniffed. He still wore his jersey, the familiar No. 5, the one he had worn for 140 games before Monday night. At some point, it dawned on him: He would never wear that jersey again. So he waited as long as possible to take it off.
Over and over, he ran through the play that almost sent the title game to overtime. The screen that Williams called. How Paige’s instinct told him that Villanova’s defenders would switch as he came off the screen. How they did. How the defender who switched fell down. How Paige leapt and thought about passing the ball to Johnson and decided against that, in mid-air, with the clock ticking down toward zero, and how, somehow, he managed to push the shot not only up before he landed but in. “We were going to win the overtime,” he said.
Paige settled at the far end of the locker room, away from his teammates, taking a gaggle of reporters with him. For a 22-year-old, for anyone really, he was remarkably composed. Over his right shoulder, a picture was plastered on the concrete wall. It showed North Carolina after its East Regional triumph, everyone smiling, everyone laughing, everyone with their right index fingers extended—No. 1. “It’s like a dream,” he said. “It’s right there, everything you wanted. And then someone reaches out and takes it from you.”
Paige grew up in Marion, Iowa, 1,000 miles from Chapel Hill and yet for reasons he cannot explain, he was always a Tar Heels fan. He named his pet schnauzer Vince after former Tar Heels star Vince Carter, and slept in a room painted Carolina blue.
More than anything he wanted to wear that jersey, to play for Williams, wanted a chance to win the title like he had on Monday night. But the first time that UNC sent an assistant to scout Paige on the Martin Brothers Select AAU team, in the summer before his junior season, he imploded. “He was terrible that day,” said C.B. McGrath, now in his 17th season as an assistant to Williams. “If that was the only game I watched, we wouldn’t have recruited him.”
Hank Huddleson knew better. Before he became Paige’s AAU coach, he had tutored future NBA standouts and Kansas greats Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich. He called Williams and said, “Coach, I can explain this very easily. He’s the best guard I’ve ever had.”
The Tar Heels offered Paige a scholarship, and he came to Chapel Hill expecting to play a handful of minutes a game behind point guard Kendall Marshall in 2012–13. But Marshall declared for the NBA draft, leaving Paige to start 34 games that season.
Paige’s sophomore season was the stuff of UNC legend. He averaged 17.5 points and 4.2 assists, and made 86 of UNC’s 146 three-pointers (58.9%), the highest percentage in school history. “Unbelievable,” McGrath said. “He was so good. When the years go by, I’ll pull up the tape and watch those games again.” It was, Williams said, “as good a year as I’ve ever had a backcourt player play.”
Then, the injuries. Plantar fasciitis in his right foot nagged him throughout his junior season, as did bone spurs in his right ankle that required surgery in April 2015. Worse yet, days before the season started last November, his right hand caught on a teammate’s jersey, snapping the third metacarpal.
Sophomore Joel Berry II took over at point guard, and when Paige returned after missing six games, Berry II remained the starter, while Paige shifted to shooting guard, an unfamiliar position. His shot, once so steady, failed him. In one four-game stretch in January, Paige went 1 for 22 from three-point range. He compounded the slump by heaping more pressure on himself. “I believe in you, son,” Williams told him throughout that month.
Instead, Paige’s injury, his absence, actually aided the Tar Heels’ growth. It forced senior forward Brice Johnson into the role of dominant force, collector of double-doubles. It also allowed Berry II to grow into UNC’s most consistent player, as evidenced by the 15 points he scored in the first half on Monday night.
When Paige returned on Dec. 1, he and Berry II gave UNC two ballhandlers in the backcourt, and with Johnson’s emergence, Carolina clinched the ACC regular-season and tournament titles for the first time since 2011–12. Paige scored in double digits in all six NCAA tournament games and hit 47.1% from behind the arc.
Against Syracuse, Paige quelled three potential runs by sinking triples from basically the same spot on the left wing. After all the injuries and the shooting woes, after the tearful speech on Senior Night, after passing Michael Jordan on UNC’s alltime scoring list (albeit in four seasons to Jordan’s three), Paige again delivered in the most important game of his career. He finished with 21 crucial points, each three more vital than the last. “Through all the stuff we’ve been through, through all the negative media attention, he’s been the face of Carolina basketball,” McGrath said.
This is what the face of Carolina basketball said on Monday night: “This will probably haunt me for the rest of my life.”
At most schools, two Final Four appearances in eight seasons nets the coach a contract extension. At the school known for Jordan, Dean Smith and five national titles, six seasons between Final Fours qualifies as an existential crisis. So when UNC went from 2009 to ’16 without one, some labeled that stretch a “drought.”
Tabbed as the nation’s top team in most preseason polls, two early losses—to Northern Iowa on Nov. 21 and Texas on Dec. 12—made the Tar Heels look at best vulnerable and at worst doomed. “People started questioning us,” Paige said. “Overrated. Lack toughness.”
No one panicked. Not internally, at least. UNC rattled off 12 wins after the Texas loss, flashing its championship potential. Then, on Feb. 17, the Tar Heels led rival Duke by eight points with 6:49 remaining. The Blue Devils, young and shorthanded, stormed back. Williams elected not to use a timeout on UNC’s last possession, and Duke’s freshman guard Derryck Thornton blocked Berry II’s attempt at a game-winner. Duke squeaked out a 74–73 win.
Williams apologized to his team that night. His players described his demeanor as kind—“as kind as you can be after a loss like that,” senior guard Justin Coleman said, adding, “It was the toughest loss we’ve had in the time I’ve been here.”
Still, no one panicked, although Williams had concerns. They were exacerbated 10 days after the Duke collapse, when UNC faltered again, at Virginia, losing 79–74. Williams gathered his team the next day for a film review that lasted longer than most movies. Players say these sessions usually take about 15 minutes. This one stretched for nearly three hours.
They watched every minute of that loss, as Williams furiously worked the rewind and pause buttons on his remote. It’s the little things, he kept saying, the attention to detail: sprinting back on defense, boxing out, setting screens, diving for loose balls. “Watch Virginia,” Williams told his team. “Play like them.”
The losses loosened North Carolina’s grip on the ACC regular-season lead. The Tar Heels traveled to Duke on March 5 needing to avenge their collapse to clinch. Earlier that week, after UNC beat Syracuse, 75–70, at home, Williams had addressed the crowd. “The last three or four years around here have been really difficult, with all the stuff, all the junk,” he told them, referencing the NCAA academic scandal that had loomed over the university, as his voice cracked and his lip trembled and his eyes welled with tears.
The Tar Heels topped Duke, securing the first ACC regular-season crown for the six seniors. Williams had worried about this group as much as any he ever coached. Especially those seniors, who had never won a conference title or conference tournament or made the Final Four. Having secured the first item on that checklist, Williams danced. He cried. He wore a hat flipped sideways. He railed against anyone who had questioned him or his team.
The ACC tournament marked another turning point. “The defense was amazing,” senior forward Toby Egbuna said. “Notre Dame couldn’t do anything [in the semifinals], and they were one of the best offensive teams in the country. The guys realized if we play defense like that, we could beat any team. Because 98% of them can’t score with us.”
But the Tar Heels still managed to fall behind Florida Gulf Coast in the first half of their first NCAA tournament game. Williams lit into his players at halftime with all of his swear words that aren’t swear words, all the daggones and daggums and daggammits. Junior forward Isaiah Hicks said he felt ashamed as color rushed into Williams’s face. He was as pink as any of his players had ever seen him, and he told them, “I don’t think you can play worse than that.”
UNC managed to overwhelm FGCU, as well as Providence, Indiana and Notre Dame—all by double digits—to reach the Final Four, where it became the betting favorite, the only No. 1 seed to advance to Houston. Their season, once near peril, had been righted.
Players from the 2009 NCAA championship team watched the ’16 version from afar and saw similarities: the slow start, the emphasis on defense, the improvement, the march of blowouts through the tournament. “They remind me of our team,” said Ty Lawson, now an Indiana Pacers guard. “Coach even did the same dance. I call it the shoulder-shrug-slash-twitching dance. It probably won’t catch on.”
This UNC team, led by those six seniors, doesn’t have three first-round draft picks like the 2009 team did. But the Tar Heels did mature into the team everyone expected at the start of the season. “If you stick around people think there’s something wrong with you,” Paige said. “We disproved that.”
Two nights before the defeat that stunned him, Williams climbed aboard a motorized cart, deep inside NRG Stadium in Houston. The North Carolina coach took shotgun after firing a few salvos in his latest news conference, telling the assembled reporters, “I’m a hell of a lot smarter about basketball than you guys.”
Williams carried a rolled-up box score from the Tar Heels’ 83–66 semifinal demolition of Syracuse in his right hand and a cup of water (adorned, naturally, with the NCAA’s official logo) in his left. His championship ring from 2009 jutted from his right ring finger.
The cart traveled maybe 100 feet and stopped outside the entrance to the Tar Heels’ locker room. On two daggone knees Williams described as “bum,” he hobbled to the door, stopping just outside, close enough to hear the celebration. Lawrence (Bubba) Cunningham, UNC’s athletic director, handed him a phone. The screen showed the scene at Franklin Street on UNC’s campus in Chapel Hill, N.C., the road jammed with revelers clad in Carolina blue. “Wow,” Williams said. “Look at that.”
He lingered for an interview that was less about that game and more about a season that ranks among the most trying and exhilarating of his coaching career, which stretches back to 1973. He stood one final victory away from passing his mentor, the late Dean Smith, with three national championships, the same number as Bob Knight and Jim Calhoun, behind only John Wooden (10), Mike Krzyzewski (five) and Adolph Rupp (four). But Williams swore he wasn’t thinking about his place in history, only about this team. He didn’t feel like they had received the credit they deserved, and if he sounded defensive or thin-skinned he didn’t really care that much. “I really felt like from the first practice we had a chance to be where we are now,” he said. “Most of the season we were the least appreciated and most criticized team I’ve ever been around that was this good.”
Williams, 65, had arrived at the Final Four, his eighth, with his best outfit in seven years, a head cold, a sinus infection and those bum knees. He insisted he had never felt better, but couldn’t avoid the questions about his health: the sideline collapse from vertigo at Boston College on Feb. 9, the banged-up right shoulder from playing golf, the mangled cartilage in both knees, which still pained him despite two surgeries last summer.
The last few weeks had unfolded like a series of sparring sessions. Williams versus detractors, real and perceived. Junk, he called the six-years-and-counting NCAA investigation into academic improprieties in the athletic department. North Carolina lost out on Brandon Ingram, who starred for Duke this season and is the possible No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft, because of the cloud created by the probe. Neither Williams nor any of his staff members have been charged with wrongdoing, but that didn’t stop reporters from asking if he knew about the phony classes in the African and Afro-American studies program and, if he didn’t know, whether he should have. Paige is among the players who acknowledged that, yes, the lingering scandal “has been especially hard” on the coach.
Williams also thought often about the deaths of four close friends between December 2014 and May 2015, including his mentor Smith, along with his neighbor, Ted Seagroves, and two friends, coaching confidant Bill Guthridge and ESPN anchor Stuart Scott. Then he took all that grief and angst and anger and channeled it into defiance, vacillating between extremes: a folksy grandfather one day, a grumpy old man the next.
As always, Williams didn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve. He wore them on his face, which is basically a rotating emoticon slideshow. In Houston, he found himself in an good position, as the head of a storied program, his team favored to win the title. So why was he so defensive? “Deep down, he loves this,” said Stanford coach Jerod Haase, who played for Williams at Kansas. “He’s fighting.”
The sell was basketball as a sanctuary, practice as a welcomed distraction; everything else was Roy vs. the world. His former players, like director of player personnel Sean May, asserted that Williams had mellowed in recent years—“he let’s them get away with stuff we would never have got away with,” May said. But mellow Roy remained in Chapel Hill while defiant Roy made the trip to Houston.
He remained that way until the end, until Paige’s three-pointer helped lift those bum knees off the ground in a celebratory leap, and Villanova’s answer ended perhaps Williams’s most trying season. He hobbled down the hallway and climbed up the stage. He paused for a beat and then, voice shaking, noted the difficulty in articulating what he was feeling at that moment. He continued anyway. “I had some really, really good teams, and some really, really good players,” he said. “I’ve never been as proud of this group as I am right now.”
When the Tar Heels trailed by 10 points late in the second half, Williams told them they would come back. More than that, he promised them. They had thundered back already so many times this season. Come back to avenge their loss against Duke. Come back to win their conference. Come back to tie the NCAA title game with a shot that was both improbable and so something that Paige would do. Then it ended, one comeback short of the most important comeback of them all.
Williams limped back down the hallway. He sat down in the folding chair. He kicked his feet up. Finally, the fight had gone out of him, the defiance deflated in 4.7 seconds. There was nothing left to defend. So he sat there, placid, sad, and that is how his season ended—in silence.