Despite heartbreaking ending, UNC fans can appreciate four-year journey
The court on which North Carolina played in its NCAA record 19th Final Four was emblazoned with the words, THE ROAD ENDS HERE. It is a message that has become as much a part of the Final Four hardwood as the NCAA logo itself, but as Carolina’s players trudged disconsolately off that floor in Houston’s NRG Stadium on the night of April 4, it was hard not to think that the words meant more to this team and its legions of supporters than the court’s designers had intended.
For UNC, the Final Four marked the end of an unexpectedly turbulent seven-year journey back to the pinnacle of college basketball. For senior stars Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, it was the culmination of oft-bumpy careers that ended with one of the greatest campaigns in the tradition-soaked history of the school. For the famed Carolina Family—which included a reported 51 former letterwinners in the stands on Monday (Michael Jordan among them)—it brought some amount of closure to a sad 14-month period, during which legendary coaches Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge died. For the team’s critics it meant the termination of questions about the Tar Heels’ toughness or their commitment to defense. And for head coach Roy Williams, it was the final step in a seasonlong adventure with a team that he said might have been his favorite of the 28 he has coached at Kansas and UNC.
With so much finality at the road’s end, it is natural to think back to where it all began. So rewind through a season in which a first-team All-America campaign from Johnson, a 6' 10" pogo stick with a penchant for punctuating ferocious dunks with primal screams, fueled the Tar Heels as they won the outright ACC regular-season crown, the ACC tournament title and reached the Final Four all in the same season for just the third time in the past 40 years. Go past the dominant NCAA tournament run, which ended with a 77–74 loss to a potent Villanova team in what may have been the greatest championship game in college basketball history; past the gutty ACC tournament triumph over Virginia; past the win over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium that ensured a first-place finish in the ACC regular-season race; and certainly past the curious early-season losses to Texas and Northern Iowa.
Go back before a 2014–15 season that ended in the Sweet 16 and was marked by a lot of losses on the court (12) and far too many off it. (ESPN broadcaster and proud Carolina alum Stuart Scott died in January 2015 of cancer; Smith passed away that February at 83; Guthridge, Smith’s successor and assistant coach for 30 years, died three months later at 77.) Before a disappointing ’13–14 season in which Paige’s own All-America performance helped the Heels beat the top four teams in the AP preseason poll but couldn’t get them out of the NCAA tournament’s first weekend. And back through a 25–11 season in ’12–13 in which Carolina beat every opponent it was supposed to and none that it wasn’t.
That campaign tipped off on Nov. 9, 2012, with a mostly forgettable 76–59 win in the Smith Center over Gardner-Webb. It’s notable now only because it marked the debuts of Paige and Johnson, two skinny freshmen who seemed unlikely to shoulder the burdens of responsibility on court and off that they would be tasked with as their careers progressed.
That night, it was impossible to envision all that the ensuing years would bring. There would be headlines about an academic scandal that tarnished the reputation of the university and threatened its athletic programs. There would be 33 losses by the basketball team over three seasons, and a slew of surprising early player departures.
Those struggles are part of what made the 2015–16 season so satisfying for anyone who bleeds Carolina blue. And despite the heartbreak of seeing them come so close to winning the program’s sixth NCAA title, when those fans look back at this team many years from now, they are likely to have more happy memories than sad ones. In fact, maybe the enduring lesson of this season is a simple one: All roads must end. And sometimes that ending will be painful. But North Carolina basketball will always go on, and being a Tar Heel is forever.