Carolina’s improbable run from mediocrity ended literally two minutes too early, as the Tar Heels lost their third consecutive ACC tournament championship game and this time face a much stiffer penalty than merely  the heartbreak of defeat the last two years.

After a third loss to “old” and talented Miami this season, the crime of beating only two teams that likewise reached the NCAA Tournament probably fits the penalty of receiving an eighth seed and the prospect of having to beat Kansas in Kansas City to make the Sweet Sixteen.
Had Carolina been able to finish what, for much of the Sunday afternoon in Greensboro, looked like a major upset in the making, the Heels likely would have moved up a line or two in the seeding and if so avoided playing Kansas for a third time since Roy Williams returned from coaching at KU 10 years ago. And, if you bear to remember, the first two were losses in the 2008 Final Four and last year’s Elite Eight game of the Midwest Regional.
Nevertheless, the Tar Heels rebounded from a disjointed poor start of the season (10-5) to win 14 of their last 19 games and get off the NCAA tourney bubble. Their only two so-called “quality wins” over UNLV and N.C. State rendered advancing to the ACC championship game almost useless unless they could have cut down the nets for the first time since 2008. After a sensational first half by both teams, Carolina led Miami with 6:38  remaining and was still only three points behind at the 2:40 mark. The 87-77 final was un-indicative of this battle royal.
Losing to the Hurricanes, who drew a No. 2 NCAA seed, was certainly no insult. Being banished to Kansas City as a No. 8 seed and a date with top-seed Kansas if the Tar Heels can defeat Villanova in their first game was also no just reward.
The transformation from an unlikeable basketball team to a lovable one began with the emergence of sophomore P.J. Hairston, who remained the central figure right through toughing out a pretty gruesome injury after scoring 21 points in the quarterfinal win over Florida State. Playing with a heavily taped hand from a stitched-up laceration, Hairston teetered on legendary status by making his first two 3’s against Maryland and then encoring with 28 against Miami, including six three-pointers from vast locations on the Greensboro  C  oliseum court.
Indeed, Hairston and his teammates will have to at least match their performance next weekend for any chance to reach the Sweet Sixteen in Arlington  , Texas. But for what was clearly a rebuilding venture after losing four starters to the NBA draft, they have at the very least created excitement and momentum going into the NCAA tourney and, more importantly, looking ahead to next season.
It’s a bit odd that UNC, which along with Duke has dominated the ACC tournament over the last 60 years, played a part in making two schools from the Sunshine State one-and-done wonders in the event. With defensive player of the year John Henson injured last season, the Tar Heels lost to Florida State’s first ACC title team. The 18-15 Seminoles were pretty horrible for most of this season and basically quit midway through the second half of their loss to UNC Friday night.
Miami, which has five seniors averaging 23 years old and the best player in the league in sophomore guard Shane Larkin, could in fact win the national championship in three weeks. But next season, the ‘Canes will have an entirely new starting lineup and likely revert to their middling status in the ACC after winning their first conference title.
But, oh what a game Sunday! The teams combined to make 15 three-pointers in a spectacular first half, trading long-range howitzers from well beyond the arc. Hairston had four of Carolina’s eight, while Larkin and unsung Trey McKinney-Jones had three each for Miami. The pace was frenetic but the play so splendid that only eight turnovers were committed.
The second half started the same way, with Carolina turning a three-point deficit into a five-point lead nine minutes in. The light blue-clad capacity crowd that gobbled up all the available tickets for the final was roaring like it was Duke in the Dean Dome. But both teams, which won rugged semifinal games Saturday, slowed it down over the last 10 minutes and you knew whoever kept knocking them in from outside was going to wear the crown.
That, unfortunately, was Miami, which made the last four treys of the game to regain the lead and protect it by hitting eight free throws down the stretch, six by Larkin who will be an NBA lottery pick this coming June. The son of baseball Hall of Famer Barry Larkin, the 6-2 point guard has an uncanny command of the game from knowing when to shoot, pass or drive and executing almost flawlessly.
Carolina still might have won if McKinney-Jones hadn’t made three more bombs in the second half, the backbreaker from the deep corner after a UNC defensive lapse that gave Miami an eight-point lead with 98 seconds remaining. The Heels managed only eight points over the last 4½ minutes as the game slipped away.


Roy Williams had nothing but praise for his team’s gallantry and said he had never been prouder during the recovery process of season that once appeared to be going nowhere. Now, it’s going to Kansas City and another possible date with Kansas, which kept Carolina from the Final Four last season only because the banged-up, top-seeded  Tar Heels had lost their first two point guards to injury.

Maybe Hairston and Co. have an unused miracle or two.

All Game Photos By Todd Melet