SAN ANTONIO — Nate Britt needed more time, said Danny Green.
Like a protective older brother, Green had hustled to beat the waves of media into Carolina’s season-ending locker room and was hunched with his arm around the freshman, almost shielding him entirely from the circling photographers.
Just minutes earlier, Britt had called the “timeout that wasn’t” — a bizarre play you’ve no doubt seen dissected by analysts ranging from Steve Kerr to USA Today and Time Magazine. After Iowa State had taken the lead with about two seconds left, the clock had stopped and then started late. As Britt raced up the court with the ball, he tried to call a timeout.
After a few painful minutes of the official review, the AT&T center crowd gradually came to realize the game had ended. So, Green knew exactly what Britt was about to go through, having experienced that same NCAA tourney locker room — a losing one — three times in his college career.
But unlike the rest of the crowd, Green wasn’t talking about the time that was or wasn’t left on the clock.
“Chin up,” he told Nate Britt. “A lot of basketball left for you.”
That’s at least three years at Carolina, to be exact.
Since we now know how eventful mere seconds can be for these Tar Heels, let’s not waste any re-hashing the tired talking points of the 2014 season — flaws like careless turnovers, scant rebounding and matador defense on enemy penetration have long been fatal to Roy Williams’ teams, and proved so on Sunday.
Instead, let’s set our clocks for the offseason.
Marcus Paige — who was arguably the difference between a trip to San Antonio and a trip to the CIT — has already announced he’s returning, and the mercurial James Michael McAdoo hinted just as much on Sunday.
“We’ll remember this,” McAdoo said. “Next year we won’t be in the same situation.”
Now, all Britt and his teammates will need is more time. Not seconds — which proved all too precious in the 85-83 loss to gutsy Iowa State — but long hours in the gym, developing the same late-game patience that the 2012 squad learned to treasure after a similarly disastrous, late-game collapse to Duke at home.
Hours in the gym, which turn into blistering summer days filled with alumni pickup games, a crucible by which fresh faces learn from the family pros what it takes to hang banners in the Smith Center.
Blistering summer days, which turn into restless weeks of fall, where the swagger of point guard Joel Berry, the aggression of Theo Pinson and the silky-smooth mid-range stroke of Justin Jackson will swell the pre-season ranks just a year after they were decimated by vice and tomfoolery.
Restless weeks of fall, which will finally give way to those few basketball-crazy months that Triangle fans anticipate so much they’re already secretly planning how to kill off the rest of the year.
If that still seems like too long to wait, remember that Danny Green and Co. rinsed, washed, and repeated that process three times: after a second-round exit in 2006, Green helped lead the Tar Heels to an Elite Eight in 2007, a Final Four in 2008 and a championship in 2009.
That’s three years before they got a chance to come back to a locker room that wasn’t as heartbreaking as the one on Sunday, where a remorseful Paige was visibly shaking and even the usually-stoic Roy Williams answered questions in a cracked voice.
“I loved my team,” Williams said. “They are hurting in that locker room – they’re really hurting. I told them to use it as fuel to do even better.”
McAdoo might have another year to accomplish that.
Paige looks to have two.
Britt will probably get three.
So, it’s ironic that all the post-game questions directed at Britt revolved around his racing up the court with the game’s last 1.6 seconds— that he couldn’t even see — bleeding away.
To those who watched Sunday, those 1.6 seconds seemed like an eternity.
To Britt, the next three years will seem like the blink of an eye.
And as long as they still tip off in Chapel Hill next season — come hell, high water, Haydn “Fats” Thomas or Duke’s bus schedule, the rest of us will have all the time in the world.
And no clock can take that away.