In the annals of men’s college basketball history, two places will forever be reserved for North Carolina State and Villanova in the discussion about the most unlikely national champion in the modern era of the tournament.
That conversation could have included this season’s North Carolina team that stormed through five games to reach the national championship before a heartbreaking loss to Kansas.
However, it’s doubtful the Tar Heels and coach Hubert Davis get the credit for what they achieved in getting so far.
North Carolina occupies a place among the Mount Rushmore of programs of the sport. That shouldn’t obscure how impressive this run was. As a No. 8 seed, it would have matched Villanova as the lowest seed ever to win the national championship. That doesn’t begin to tell the whole story of how unexpected it was for the Tar Heels to be playing on the final day of the season.
While the regular season seems like a lifetime ago, it’s easy to forget where the Tar Heels were six weeks ago. They were going nowhere after an embarrassing home loss to Pittsburgh on Feb. 16. North Carolina sat at 18-8 and had been blown out by Duke and Kentucky, and lost handily to Tennessee and Purdue.
Even against a weak ACC there were a 28-point loss Miami and 22-point defeat against Wake Forest. There were no significant wins to bolster their tournament resume. They were on the tournament bubble and going in the wrong direction.
Instead, the loss served as a turning point that led North Carolina to New Orleans. It won four in a row before its monumental victory at Duke in the regular-season finale that was the first indication this team could compete against championship-caliber opponents.
Once the tournament started, this looked more like a vintage Tar Heels unit than one that scrapped their way into the field. They beat Marquette by 32. They led No. 1 seed Baylor by 25. Even when an ejection to Brady Manek led to a monumental meltdown that forced overtime, they outplayed the defending national champions in extra period to advance.
Defeats of UCLA and Saint Peter’s sent the Tar Heels to the Final Four. They again stopped Duke in a memorable semifinal. It just seemed they ran out of gas in the end as Kansas staged a historic rally in the second half.
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Much of the credit should go to Hubert Davis. He proved to be worthy of the seat passed down to him from Dean Smith and Roy Williams. Davis was a steadying influence when the season could have fallen apart. It helped inspire improved performances by his backcourt that dominated opponents in the postseason.
Caleb Love had 30 against UCLA. He had 28 against Duke, including a clutch three in the final minute. When Love was off, RJ Davis stepped up with 30 in the Baylor win.
Both were off Monday, shooting a combined 10 of 41 from the field and 1 of 13 from the three-point line.
Manek, who provided 22 three-pointers in the tournament, many at crucial times to stop runs by opponents or extend a UNC run, didn’t hit one in the second half as North Carolina saw its 15-point halftime lead melt away.
The one constant was Armando Bacot, who produced a double double in all six tournament games, something no other player has done. But on an injured ankle suffered in the semifinal, he was laboring much of the second half and eventually left the court in the final minute. Kansas immediately exploited his absence from him for a key basket that pushed its lead to three.
This loss certainly will sting for a program that expects to win national titles. It missed out on its seventh overall that would have moved it one behind second-place Kentucky.
But it’s worth noting, the group is an anomaly compared to other North Carolina championship teams. There’s not a sure-fire NBA star on the roster. Nobody is projected to even be taken in the first round in the upcoming draft.
The sum of the parts, though, was good enough to get as close as you can to a national championship. That’s something that should be savored when the pain of the loss disappears.
With Davis able to squeeze what he did out of this team in his first go around, you have to like North Carolina’s chances to get back to this place again. And maybe next time the finish is different.