The UNC men’s basketball program has won six NCAA championships. Each win had its own particular rhythm, its own ups and downs that drove Tar Heel fans to near-madness. The same can be said of Carolina’s six NCAA championship losses, each of which carried its own unique sting. In 1977, Marquette ruined Phil Ford’s best chance at a title. In 1981, Isiah Thomas and Indiana ran past James Worthy and the Tar Heels. And in 2022, the gallant Iron 5 lost a 16-point lead to Kansas.
But if there’s one thing Tar Heel fans can agree on, it’s this: no loss carried as much weight, crushed as many souls or changed as many lives as what happened in Houston on April 4, 2016.
With UNC and Villanova potentially meeting in this week’s Phil Knight Invitational, Chapelboro is telling the story of that night in 2016 and all that happened before and after, told by those who were there and those who watched.
Note: Quotes spoken the night of the game in question are in italics.
‘The Light at the End of the Tunnel’
For the first time in what felt like an eternity, the Tar Heels came into the 2015-16 men’s basketball season with massive expectations. The team was ranked preseason No. 1 for the first time in four years (the horror!), returning the core of a team which had advanced to the Sweet 16 in 2015 and challenged No. 1 seed and future national runner-up Wisconsin. Guard Marcus Paige, forward Brice Johnson, wing Justin Jackson and point guard Joel Berry would form the veteran nucleus of the 2016 Tar Heels.
The past few seasons had been particularly difficult for head coach Roy Williams and the men’s basketball program. An ever-growing academic scandal involving both the football and men’s basketball programs culminated in the release of a report by investigator Kenneth Wainstein. His report detailed the scope of academic fraud at UNC.
Adam Sheinhaus (Sophomore at UNC): The scandal came out, and we as students were thinking, ‘What happens if we lose our accreditation?’ Like, the school doesn’t exist anymore and you’re gonna have to transfer. It was constant. You heard it from your friends that didn’t go to Carolina. You heard it from ESPN or whatever message board you’re reading. It almost felt like they were coming after you personally. ‘You go to Carolina, you’re taking fake classes.’
Jones Angell (Play-by-play commentator, Tar Heel Sports Network): There had been so much negativity, not just for a year or two. It had been five or six years where it just felt like it was constant that Carolina was taking shots. People were saying negative and hurtful things about Carolina, some of which were warranted and some of which were not. It really was a difficult time to be a Tar Heel fan. It felt like it was never-ending.
Louis Fernandez (Senior at UNC): There was a lot of concern for a while, like, ‘What is gonna happen to UNC? Is the NCAA gonna bring down a hammer on them? Will the athletic department recover? What’s all that gonna look like?’
Brett Thompson (Junior at UNC): During the 2015 season, I had written a really hot-take blog post, like ‘Is this the worst season in Carolina basketball history?’ Not necessarily because of the results. But that season, you had the Wainstein Report drop, you had a team that just could not shoot the ball very well, you had the very unfortunate passing of Dean Smith, you had them losing in double overtime to Duke on the day we’re all remembering Dean Smith. And then Duke goes on to win the title. I cannot think of a worse time to be a Tar Heel fan than that year. It was just a perfect mix of awful.
With Wainstein’s report casting a long shadow over Chapel Hill, recruiting became harder for Williams. Many young prospects were wary of signing on to a program which potentially would be ineligible to play in coming NCAA Tournaments. It made the steadfast commitment of Paige, Johnson and fellow 2016 senior Joel James that much more admirable to Carolina fans.
Louis Fernandez: The people who were there at the time when the investigation was wrapping up and all these details were coming out, we weren’t involved. We weren’t there. It kind of felt like the team was an encapsulation of that feeling. It felt like the light at the end of the tunnel.
Pat James (Sports Editor, The Daily Tar Heel): The ride they took over the course of their careers, I think it just endeared them to the fanbase so much.
Jones Angell: I think that class and that team really did connect with Carolina.
Jack Molloy (Sophomore at UNC): It really comes down to the adversity that the program and the school had seen over the previous years. A big piece of it is, a lot of those guys were seniors and juniors. It’s not like it was this freshman team where you didn’t have a huge connection to the players. You’d seen them play for the program, have tough defeats, then come back and really grow. As a student, I’d only been there for two years, but I still felt really connected to that group.
Steve Kirschner (Director of Communications, UNC men’s basketball): The 2016 team was a team that really turned the momentum of the program around.
As the Tar Heels blazed through the regular season, they snapped several dry spells which had hung over the program in recent, less successful seasons: they won the ACC regular-season title for the first time since 2012, they won at Duke for the first time since 2012 and they won the ACC Tournament for the first time since 2008. In defeating Virginia for the conference title, Carolina avenged a regular-season loss to the Cavaliers.
Pat James: Obviously, the national championship game was what it was. But that ACC Championship Game… that was a battle.
Steve Kirschner: It was a really electric atmosphere. It was a Saturday night championship game up in D.C. It was kind of split with a ton of Carolina fans and a ton of Virginia fans.
Pat James: That Virginia team had given that UNC team so many fits over the years. So that was a really significant win. You could kind of feel the momentum steadily building over the course of that run.
Steve Kirschner: You build your momentum with each win in March.
All of that culminated with the Tar Heels earning a No. 1 seed in the 2016 NCAA Tournament. With Paige finding his shooting stroke that had at times disappeared during the regular season and first team All-American Johnson swatting everything in sight, Carolina dispatched No. 16 Florida Gulf Coast, No. 9 Providence, No. 5 Indiana and No. 6 Notre Dame on its way to a record 19th Final Four appearance, and its first since 2009.
Steve Kirschner: There were no fluke wins. That team started to play really well at that point.
Pat James: I don’t remember ever feeling like UNC had much to worry about.
Jones Angell: The Tar Heels, quite honestly, hadn’t been challenged a ton in that tournament up to that point.
Louis Fernandez: So many of those players had been there for so long and had gone through so much, having to be constantly ridiculed for the scandal and everything. It was cool to see them have this opportunity to really put the cherry on top of their Carolina career.
Adam Sheinhaus: We looked good. We looked really good.
In a stroke of luck for the Tar Heels, fellow No. 1 seed Virginia would not be joining them in Houston. The Cavaliers had shockingly lost to No. 10 seed Syracuse in the Elite Eight, spoiling predictions of an ACC Championship Game rematch in the national semifinals.
Brett Thompson: I remember watching Syracuse-Virginia and freaking out. Like, ‘Please, God, don’t give us Virginia.’ It’s just bad vibes.
Louis Fernandez: Half the NCAA Tournament is just getting lucky with how things fall.
Adam Lucas (Columnist, GoHeels.com): Virginia was definitely good, but Carolina was also definitely good. Certainly, any time you’re in that tournament situation and high seeds are taken out, that’s not disappointing, no matter who they are.
UNC fans and journalists covering the Tar Heels streamed into Houston’s NRG Stadium for the weekend.
Jack Molloy: I asked my parents if I could go. They were very adamant about saying no. So that spurred a one-week span of back-and-forth with some very difficult conversations. It got to the point where they weren’t saying no. They didn’t say yes, but they were like, ‘We still don’t want you to go.’ I think we had a crew of 20 friends hopping in five different cars and taking the 23-hour drive down there.
Adam Sheinhaus: If I recall correctly, it was a spur of the moment thing. It was, ‘Oh my God, Carolina won. Let’s see if we can get a ticket!’
In the national semifinals, Carolina easily handled No. 10 Syracuse, defeating the Orange for the third time that season.
Adam Lucas: When you’re playing a team you’ve played before, especially a team from your conference and maybe one you think you might be a little better than, there’s less of the unknown, which is what you usually get in the Final Four. Carolina knew a lot about Syracuse, and I definitely think that was beneficial in that game.
Adam Sheinhaus: It wasn’t a blowout to the point where you were like, ‘The game is over.’ But it was never close enough that it was particularly nerve-wracking.
Brett Thompson: It didn’t really get away until the second half. I remember it being kind of stressful. Maybe that’s the anxiety in me. In hindsight, it was a breeze.
Pat James: It was a relatively boring game.
Awaiting Carolina in the championship would be No. 2 seed Villanova. The Wildcats were coming off a historic beatdown of No. 2 seed Oklahoma and National Player of the Year Buddy Hield in their national semifinal, annihilating the Sooners by 44 points. It is still the most lopsided Final Four game ever.
Louis Fernandez: That was a good Oklahoma team that they faced in the Final Four, and they just destroyed them.
Jones Angell: They had absolutely taken apart Oklahoma. It was a total one-sided contest. Villanova shot well over 50 percent in the semifinal game. And I remember thinking, ‘Man, it’s gonna be hard for them to shoot that well two games in a row.’
UNC and Villanova knew each other well, especially in the postseason. Each of Carolina’s previous two title runs had featured a win over the Wildcats. Head coach Jay Wright’s 2016 group was far better than either of those teams, sporting future NBA stars Jalen Brunson, Josh Hart and Mikal Bridges. Four of Villanova’s five NCAA Tournament wins had come by 13 points or more.
Brett Thompson: I saw what Nova did to Oklahoma, who I’d been watching in awe all year, and I was like, ‘Oh shoot.’ So there were some nerves. But at the same time, for context, I had never seen Carolina lose a title game. They were two-for-two in my lifetime. So I’m sitting here thinking, ‘They got to the title game. They’re gonna finish it.’
Adam Sheinhaus: I feel like you’re always more nervous when you think you’re gonna win. I remember standing in the hotel room literally walking in circles because I couldn’t sit still. I was like, ‘Let’s just get the game going!’
Louis Fernandez: You’re on edge, because you just realize it all comes down to this one moment.
Steve Kirschner: I had great respect for Jay Wright and Villanova’s program. I knew they were gonna be really hard to beat, because his teams always play really hard. But any time you get to that point, everybody’s really good. We were really good. They were really good. I felt good about the game.
Pat James: The entire two days between when the semifinal game ended and the championship game started, the DTH staff in Houston were planning things out. So many hours were spent trying to come up with what our winning headline would be. So much prep went into that. I think in some ways we were totally zoned in on ‘What happens if a win happens?’ that even the idea of a loss wasn’t necessarily as much of a conversation point.
Brett Thompson: I’d even pre-made a couple memes before the game, just in case they won.
‘The World Was On the Line’
The ball is tipped, and there you are…
Adam Sheinhaus (Sophomore at UNC): I was in the lower bowl, above our student section, behind the basket.
Pat James (Sports Editor, The Daily Tar Heel): I was at half-court. I was probably two or three rows behind Jim Nantz.
Jack Molloy (Sophomore at UNC, watching from the student section behind the basket): It’s the coolest atmosphere because you know anyone that’s there has made the same trek as you. So you’re all in this together.
Adam Lucas (Columnist, GoHeels.com): I was with the Tar Heel Sports Network, Jones Angell and Eric Montross, courtside. The way the court’s set up now for the Final Four, we’re almost even at eye-level with the court, because the court’s sitting up. You’re basically looking at players’ kneecaps, more or less.
Jones Angell (Play-by-play commentator, Tar Heel Sports Network): It’s a unique perspective, for sure.
Louis Fernandez (Senior at UNC): I was at an apartment complex with some friends at the time. There were probably between 15 and 20 people in this one room. But also, what’s important contextually, is it was an apartment building filled almost entirely with UNC students.
Brett Thompson (Junior at UNC, watching in Chapel Hill with friends): My vote was to go back to the apartment we watched the Syracuse game at two nights earlier. Instead, I got outvoted. We went back to my friend’s house that we watched the Panthers lose the Super Bowl at. So, already bad vibes.
Adam Sheinhaus: Earlier in the season, we’d all gotten these roll-out signs that said ‘Geico’ on one side and ‘Go Heels’ on the other side. I don’t remember why, but I feel like a lot of us were just tickled by these signs. For whatever reason, this sign just happened to make it to the next game. We won the game we got the sign at and we won the next game. So me and my friends were like, ‘The sign’s won twice. Gotta bring the sign to the next game.’ The sign made it to the rest of the games, and then I took it to Washington for the ACC Tournament. I took it to Raleigh for the NCAA Tournament. It was in Philly for the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight. I brought it to the Syracuse game in Houston.
We had parked the car for the national championship game. You can’t park super close. And I left it in the car. I didn’t think about it until we’d almost gotten to the stadium. By that point, I was like, ‘If we go back to the car, we may miss the beginning of the game. Come on Adam, it can’t possibly matter that you’re not bringing the sign to the game. That’s silly.’ So I left it in the car.
As the game began, Carolina jumped out to an early lead on the strength of hot outside shooting. The Tar Heels, who made just 5.6 three-pointers per game on average (good for 311th in the country), made seven of them in the first half alone.
Pat James: That was a big storyline coming into the Final Four, the idea of the ‘NRG Effect.’ Playing in a big dome like that, what’s the depth perception like? That wasn’t exactly a super strong three-point shooting UNC team, either. It was pretty surprising to see them come around like that.
Jack Molloy: Every single basket carried this weight unlike anything I’d ever experienced. Making a bucket versus missing it felt like the world was on the line.
Louis Fernandez: It was punch after punch. It all felt like a blur.
Brett Thompson: Terrible basketball. That game was atrocious for 36 minutes. It was just choppy. There wasn’t a lot of flow. There were a lot of whistles. I don’t remember if they were good or bad. Just a lot of them.
Thirty-six fouls were called in the game — almost one per minute. Villanova was whistled for 16 and UNC for 20. Every Tar Heel who played in the game ended with at least one foul, and all five starters had at least two. Reserve forward Isaiah Hicks got called for four in just 20 minutes of action.
But it was a Villanova reserve who ended up stealing the show. Phil Booth, a sophomore guard from Baltimore, scored seven points in the first half, including a jumper to cut Carolina’s lead down to five points at the halftime buzzer. Booth’s shot came after a driving layup from Justin Jackson was blocked in the final seconds. The four-point swing gave Villanova a boost going into halftime, and proved to be a turning point in the game. Booth ended the night with 20 points.
Steve Kirschner (Director of Communications, UNC men’s basketball): To me, he’s the star of the game. Phil Booth was fantastic. That was a bit of a surprise to us.
Adam Lucas: As you watched him get his 20, I remember thinking, ‘He’s having the kind of game that enables teams to win national championships.’
After trailing 39-34 at halftime, Villanova exploded out of the second half gate with a 15-7 run to take a 49-46 lead. A three-pointer from Booth punctuated the spurt. Carolina’s hot shooting from the first half abandoned it in the second, and the Tar Heels missed six of their first nine shots while committing four turnovers. UNC’s shooting percentage fell from 54 percent in the first half to 34 percent in the second. Villanova’s shooting percentages in the first and second half were identical: 58 percent.
Adam Lucas: It just felt like nothing was going right. Villanova, unfortunately, did not go through a similar cold spell.
Jones Angell: You just hated it so much for the group. That was the overriding feeling. You just felt like it was supposed to go differently than this, and it was supposed to happen in a better way for Carolina. And unfortunately, it just felt like nothing would go in the basket.
Pat James: You could feel Villanova slowly taking control. It was pretty crazy how quickly things change.
Brett Thompson: Villanova just took over.
‘There’s A Chance Here’
As the minutes ticked down on the 2015-16 college basketball season, Villanova steadily extended its lead. With 5:29 remaining, Booth hit a pair of free throws to give the Wildcats a 67-57 advantage — their largest of the night. It was by far the largest deficit Carolina had faced all tournament, and also its largest deficit in any game since late February.
Adam Sheinhaus (Sophomore at UNC): It was teetering on the point where you’re like, ‘Man, do you want them to just put us out of our misery?’ It’s getting a little away from us.
Adam Lucas (Columnist, GoHeels.com): I don’t remember thinking, ‘This is not doable.’ At the five-minute mark, I felt like it was still possible.
Jack Molloy (Sophomore at UNC): I really wasn’t that worried. Going into the game, I was confident we were the better team. So even in that moment, being down by 10, you know you can come back.
Brett Thompson (Junior at UNC): There’s always hope, but I’m sitting here thinking, ‘It’s done.’ I’m saying that trying to reverse-jinx it. I’m trying to do anything I can to get some mojo going.
Pat James (Sports Editor, The Daily Tar Heel): At some point, I remember Coach Williams said something along the lines of, ‘We’re gonna have a chance to win this game.’ And you could definitely see: they never really gave up. It was very clear that they were gonna stay in it.
Roy Williams (Head coach, UNC men’s basketball): When we were down 10, I promised them if they’d do what I said, we’d come back and we’d have a chance to win the game at the end. And I said that because I trusted them and believed in them.
With their season on the line, the Tar Heels staged a frantic, desperate rally. The team went on a 10-3 run, capped off by a corner three from Paige. It was just Carolina’s third three of the second half after knocking down seven in the first. The score was 70-67 Wildcats with 1:30 remaining.
Adam Sheinhaus: We’ve made this little run, I still know it’s a long shot in my head, but I’m like, ‘It’s gonna be devastating to lose this game, because now we’ve made this run at the end and we’ve built it all up.’ If we lose, it’s gonna be that much worse than losing by 15.
Brett Thompson: Immediately, I’m on my feet. I was sitting on the floor the whole game in front of the couch. It took a lot to get me standing because I’d be in people’s way.
Jones Angell: Goodness gracious. What’s your heartbeat right now?
On the next Villanova possession, Carolina executed a perfect half-court trap defense, forcing an errant pass by Wildcats guard Ryan Arcidiacono. It sailed out of bounds, and the Tar Heels got the ball back.
Grant Hill (Color commentator, CBS Sports): I stand to be corrected. Maybe the trap does work!
On their next possession, the Tar Heels passed the ball down low to Johnson, who banked in a short jumper to cut the lead to 70-69. Johnson’s 13th and 14th points of the game had brought Carolina to as close as it had been since early in the second half.
Adam Lucas (Columnist, GoHeels.com): I think even Brice would tell you that he was frustrated during part of that game. What made him so good was that he was an emotional player, and then what made him struggle in some of his earlier seasons at Carolina was that he was an emotional player. I think there may have been a couple times in that game where maybe it was a little bit past the red line for him, but absolutely no way Carolina’s even sniffing that game if he’s not who he is for the balance of that season.
Louis Fernandez (Senior at UNC): Brice was otherworldly for a good stretch of that season.
Brett Thompson: They were gonna go where he took them. During that tournament, he very much took them to the Final Four and to the title game.
Pat James (Sports Editor, The Daily Tar Heel): He was always somebody over those first three years that you weren’t exactly sure what you were gonna get.
Steve Kirschner (Director of Communications, UNC men’s basketball): Marcus was a known quantity, but Brice had had a good-but-not-spectacular career. Then all of a sudden… he had a great season. He was a first team All-American. That was one of the better individual seasons that a Carolina basketball player had had in a long time. Brice deserved everything that came his way.
Adam Lucas: Watching Brice evolve from a guy who just got yelled at a lot by Roy Williams into maybe the most dominant player in the country that year, that was a great thing to watch.
Two more foul shots from Booth pushed the lead back to three points at 72-69 with 35 seconds left. On the next UNC possession, Paige slashed inside and attempted a layup. It spun out and into a sea of Villanova jerseys. But instead of a Wildcat coming up with the ball, Paige recovered his own miss and scooped home a putback. The lead was back down to one.
Brett Thompson: That was the play where I was like, ‘Oh, there’s a chance here.’
Steve Kirschner: That was one of the most remarkable plays of the whole tournament.
Eric Montross (Color commentator, Tar Heel Sports Network): Where there’s a will, there’s a way. That’s the only way you can explain that one.
Carolina fouled Hart with 13.5 seconds left. Hart, who had missed an earlier free throw, coolly knocked down both of his foul shots. Once again, Villanova led by three points. The score was 74-71. Wright called a timeout, leaving both teams with one remaining.
‘There’s No Way That’s Going In’
Bill Raftery (Color commentator, CBS Sports): I think you’ve got to think about a three if you get under 10 seconds.
Brett Thompson (Junior at UNC): I remember thinking, ‘We’ve gotta go.’ They took a while to get into what they were doing. I think they tried to get Marcus a ball screen to free him up. It did not work, so Marcus was covered. I’m thinking, ‘Dude, we’ve gotta get something off here. Time’s ticking.’
Louis Fernandez (Senior at UNC): I was very angry at first, because I thought that we weren’t gonna get a shot off.
Despite Villanova’s efforts to deny Paige the ball, Berry somehow slipped a pass to him under a diving attempt from Wildcat center Daniel Ochefu.
Jones Angell (Play-by-play commentator, Tar Heel Sports Network): Right when he elevated to take it, from our angle it looked like he had a clear look. And then all of a sudden, the Villanova player flies to challenge it.
Adam Lucas (Columnist, GoHeels.com): We had a pretty good view of him getting the ball and going up to shoot. And then you saw he was swarmed and just thought, ‘This is not gonna work out well.’ Then, somehow, he hangs in the air and lets the ball go.
Marcus Paige (UNC senior guard): I knew I was gonna have to shoot it. My instinct kicked in right away to throw the ball to Brice under the basket, which is why I hesitated with the ball when I jumped. But obviously, we needed three.
Louis Fernandez: He jumps up and double-clutches and swings his feet out.
Adam Sheinhaus (Sophomore at UNC): He puts it up, and you’re like, ‘Nah.’
Brett Thompson: I’m like, ‘That is the ugliest shot.’
Pat James (Sports Editor, The Daily Tar Heel): You see him go up, and honestly, you start to turn away. Because you’re like, ‘There’s no way that’s going in.’ As awkward as it was, limbs flying everywhere. I didn’t even know if it would touch the rim at that point. We turned our attention toward getting the end-of-game, final score tweet prepped.
Steve Kirschner (Director of Communications, UNC men’s basketball): As I looked, and Marcus would’ve been 10 feet diagonally to my right, the official on the sideline was standing right in front of me. I was scrunched down, trying to look through his legs to find Marcus. I never saw him. I just looked up, and I saw the ball go in.
Jim Nantz (Play-by-play commentator, CBS Sports): Impossible! How did he do that?!
Jones Angell (Play-by-play commentator, Tar Heel Sports Network): Game tied on an improbable, double-clutch triple by Paige!
Jack Molloy (Sophomore at UNC): The Marcus Paige shot is seared into my brain.
Louis Fernandez: One of my first thoughts was, ‘That’s what’s gonna be playing in One Shining Moment for the next couple of decades.’ It was iconic. It was going to be the NCAA Tournament shot forever.
Adam Lucas: I think Coach Williams has said this, too: it looked good from the moment he let it go. It didn’t feel like the desperation shot we all think of now.
Brett Thompson: If you could go frame-by-frame of me in that moment, I’m sitting on the floor, and I’m somehow standing one frame to the next. There was no transition.
Jack Molloy: Before the game, they had put on all the seats these little seat cushions that were in the shapes of basketballs.
Pat James: All the fans had seat cushions. And as soon as the ball went in, you saw them go flying into the air.
Jack Molloy: Everyone in the stadium is just throwing them in the air. It’s raining seat pads. It’s like a parade. It was the most magical sight, just scanning the whole stadium, seeing these things flying in the air.
Adam Lucas: It was insanity.
Pat James: It was just an unreal visual. You get chills thinking about it now. That was a really cool image, and one that’s burned in my mind.
Jones Angell: Just a perfect example of Marcus Paige: figuring out a way to do it. It wasn’t always the absolute prettiest, but he just figured out a way to make the play and give his team the best chance to win.
Steve Kirschner: It was a remarkable play. And it shows you everything about Marcus. He wasn’t gonna let a second go without doing whatever he could do to win the game.
Roy Williams (Head coach, UNC men’s basketball): It’s athleticism. It’s ability. But it’s toughness, too.
Adam Lucas: Anytime Marcus Paige was on the court, you felt like Carolina had a chance.
Brett Thompson: The house I’m at is going crazy. It was like a game-winning shot. People were going nuts. I remember specifically someone putting their shoes on to go to Franklin Street.
Adam Sheinhaus: He made the shot, and the first thing I did was I looked right at the clock above the basket, which was at 4.7 seconds.
Jones Angell: With that much time, you knew Villanova was going to at least have a chance at the basket.
Jack Molloy: Absolutely enough time to come down and hit a shot.
Adam Lucas: I remember immediately thinking, ‘I thought we were a lot closer to the buzzer.’
Brett Thompson: I was the one guy killing the buzz when the Villanova timeout was called. Like, ‘It’s a lot of time. I don’t feel good about this.’ At the same time though, I’m like, ‘There’s no way.’
Marcus Paige: I told the team when I made the shot, ‘We’ve got 4.7 seconds to play defense, and this game is ours.’ Because no matter what, we were gonna win the overtime.
Louis Fernandez: I remember this very vividly: after the shot’s made, I turned to two of my friends who know college basketball, and we said ‘There’s too much time.’
‘I Am Not Gonna Be A Meme Right Now’
With 4.7 seconds left, Villanova set up its play. Kris Jenkins, the Wildcats’ 6-6 junior forward, would inbound the ball to Arcidiacono. UNC elected not to closely guard Jenkins as he inbounded the ball.
Eric Montross (Color commentator, Tar Heel Sports Network): You’ve got to really lock in, because these guys just need a breath, just a split second, and they’ve got all kinds of torchers from the perimeter. We’re not guaranteed overtime.
Louis Fernandez (Senior at UNC): Watching the ball come up the court, I was nervous, because it was so easy. It felt like no time was going off the clock.
Pat James (Sports Editor, The Daily Tar Heel): They inbound the ball, and I watched Jenkins the entire way. You could see him trailing. It’s like, ‘He’s getting the ball.’ Nobody had really picked him up quite yet, and he had all sorts of space. And I was like, ‘This is actually looking really dangerous.’
As Arcidiacono sprinted up the court, he passed the ball back to Jenkins, who had crossed the half-court line unmarked. Jenkins received the ball a few steps behind the three-point line. Both of UNC’s closest defenders were inside the line. Jenkins had a clean look at the basket and took his shot.
Pat James: When he got the pass, I started typing out the final score tweet. There was no doubt in my mind that he was gonna make that shot.
Brett Thompson (Junior at UNC): Once he got it off, I was like, ‘Oh no.’
Adam Lucas (Columnist, GoHeels.com): When he let it go, absolutely no doubt that thing’s going in.
Steve Kirschner (Director of Communications, UNC men’s basketball): It looked good leaving his hand.
Roy Williams (Head coach, UNC men’s basketball): I pretty much knew it was going in. And it was. It was helpless.
Eric Montross (Color commentator, Tar Heel Sports Network): Great day in the morning.
Steve Kirschner: When the shot went in, the manager for Villanova jumped up in the air, then looked at me right away and said, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? You just won the national championship. Congratulations. Get out there and celebrate.’
Adam Lucas: Jenkins’ family was directly behind us. So Villanova celebrated basically on top of us, which is not where you wanted to be.
Jones Angell (Play-by-play commentator, Tar Heel Sports Network): Our call, you can tell that we got gut-punched. He hits it for the championship, and we’re just silent for a few seconds. You’re just letting it all wash over you.
Jack Molloy (Sophomore at UNC): I have never, ever seen that much energy and excitement leave one person, let alone thousands of people, so quickly. Immediately, it was like our souls got ripped out and stomped and spat on by one college kid.
Steve Kirschner: As soon as it went in, the stadium people released the balloons and confetti immediately. And the officials were still looking at the replay to see if it was good.
Jack Molloy: I was there. I think anyone watching knew he got it off cleanly, and knew the game was over. It was almost even more painful to prolong it.
Jim Nantz (Play-by-play commentator, CBS Sports): They’re gonna check the clock if there’s any time, and boy they’ve got a problem on their hands if they do.
Jones Angell: If it counts, it’ll be an all-timer.
Eric Montross: Do you think he got it off?
Jones Angell: I do.
Jones Angell: I remember vividly just trying to keep our composure and tell everybody what was going on and explain what had happened, while also trying to get out of this mob of Villanova happiness.
Pat James: You look over at the UNC sideline, and you see just this emotionless face on a lot of them.
Adam Sheinhaus: Those first five minutes after were like, ‘Really?’
Adam Lucas: It was difficult, because what could you say? He made the shot.
Louis Fernandez: One of my friends screamed, ‘F—!’ Just a singular ‘F—!’ cutting through the sound.
Brett Thompson: I don’t move for maybe five minutes. There were people probably crying. I know there were people slamming things. Just anger, despair in the room. I am sitting there, just empty. I’m like, ‘If I move, it turns real.’
Louis Fernandez: One thing that will always stand out to me is you heard everyone in the entire building reacting. You heard cries, you heard yelling. It felt like time was standing still.
Jack Molloy: I’ll never forget this: Kris Jenkins hits the shot, we just lost the national championship on a buzzer-beater. Immediately I stand up tall, and I’m telling people around me, ‘That might be the greatest ending to a national championship that will ever happen. And as a basketball fan, I respect that. I think it’s so cool we were here for that.’ But I was like, ‘I am not gonna be a meme right now.’ So I didn’t have my hands on my head, I didn’t have tears streaming down my face. I refused to be a meme.
And I have friends who were also at the game. I think if you search ‘Sad UNC fan’ they’re on the first page of Google results, leaning on each other with tears streaming. And I’m like, ‘Couldn’t be me.’
Louis Fernandez: I remember just sitting there, not really being able to comprehend what was happening. And then my girlfriend at the time walked up to me and was like, ‘I think we need to go.’
In the aftermath of the shot, players, staff members and journalists made their way to the locker room.
Steve Kirschner (Director of Communications, UNC men’s basketball): I stepped up to walk off the court with our team, and we had to walk in front of the Villanova bench, down the steps and off the court. That was a pretty miserable walk.
Pat James (Sports Editor, The Daily Tar Heel): We start to make our way over there, and the next thing we know Kris Jenkins and the rest of the Villanova team are coming up the path there, walking right up on us. It was bedlam.
Steve Kirschner: You hear 70,000 people. There was just an electricity. You couldn’t pick out individual voices or things being said. I just remember this hum.
You’re in a football stadium, so there’s a long walk from the edge of the court to the tunnel, and then from the tunnel into your locker room. It takes a couple minutes. I can’t remember individual noises until we got to the locker room. And then the only individual noises I heard were people sobbing.
You had a 10-minute cooling-off period. From the minute the last person walked into the locker room, they put a timer on you, and you had 10 minutes to gather yourself. Those are always brutal. In 10 minutes, you have to open up and let the press in your locker room or take your players and coach to a press conference, or both.
Your season ended, and your national championship dreams ended. For Joel James, Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, their careers ended. And in 10 minutes, you have to open up to the world and tell everybody how you feel.
We bought a couple of extra minutes. We stalled a little bit. But at a certain point, the NCAA just said, ‘Look, we’ve gotta go.’
Jones Angell (Play-by-play commentator, Tar Heel Sports Network): If I’m not mistaken, they may have changed the rules after that year.
Steve Kirschner: We took Joel Berry and Marcus Paige to the press conference. And they were amazing. They handled it so well. I remember articles being written about Marcus and how well he had done.
Jones Angell: He was so emotional. So many different feelings, with it being his last college game. That was a tough one to watch.
Marcus Paige (UNC senior guard): This has been the happiest and most fun four years of my life, this year especially. Hasn’t been my best year as a player, but this has been the most fun I’ve ever had in my entire life with this team, all the way up until that last horn went off. It’s hard, because at some point tonight I have to take this jersey off, and I never get to put it back on.
Steve Kirschner: We actually got reprimanded by the NCAA, because Marcus wore a Gatorade towel over his shoulder to the press conference. Gatorade wasn’t the sponsor.
Adam Lucas (Columnist, GoHeels.com): I didn’t go to the locker room. I didn’t need to see that. In a normal situation, that is what I would do. This is one of a tiny, tiny handful of times that I haven’t done that. I just wanted to sit in my seat, have Villanova finish their stupid celebration, get out of there, get off the air, pack up the stuff and get out of Houston, hopefully never to come back again until this coming April.
Pat James (Sports Editor, The Daily Tar Heel): Being around so many different losing locker rooms over the years, you think you can prepare for it in some sense. But honestly, it really is incomparable to anything else that I’ve been around.
Steve Kirschner: Easily the most upset, crushed locker room I’ve ever been in at a basketball game.
Pat James: The lifelessness throughout, you could feel it.
Steve Kirschner: Marcus and Brice were on the floor, on their hands and knees, sobbing. That was a hard locker room to be in. Coach Williams needed a few moments even before he could talk to the team.
Roy Williams (Head coach, UNC men’s basketball): I’m not very good because I can’t take away the hurt. I’m not very good because I can’t change that. I told them I loved them. I told them I wish I could’ve helped them more.
Pat James: I grew up around UNC basketball my entire life. But once I started working for the DTH, I separated the fan aspect pretty easily. It’s not something that I really cared about. I was able to be unbiased. But I do remember sitting there listening to Marcus talk. That got me.
Marcus Paige (UNC senior guard): You had to get to this level to be considered and to be remembered. There’s not a whole lot of guys that have done better than us if you think about it. It’s hard to say now because we were so close to being at the top of the mountain. But hanging a Final Four banner in that gym is something we’ll be proud of for the rest of our lives.
‘You Just Had to Grieve’
In Chapel Hill, disconsolate fans made their way home.
Louis Fernandez (Senior at UNC): It felt like something out of a zombie apocalypse. You see a bunch of people walking with these blank expressions on their faces.
I saw a couple of people just laying down in the road. Just sitting there. Some on the sidewalk, a couple on the curb. It felt like everyone was going through the exact same emotion at the exact same time.
Brett Thompson (Junior at UNC): I went to bed, and I’m laying there with my phone. I just watched the shot over and over again so that tomorrow when I see it, it’s just numb. It was the most psychopathic thing I’ve ever done.
Louis Fernandez: It’s just a game, but at the same time, there was so much mourning and grief over what could have been. You saw it on everyone’s face and you felt it hanging in the air as you were walking outside. It was a very, very unique experience.
Pat James (Sports Editor, The Daily Tar Heel): Not being in the DTH office when Kris made the shot, I hear people talk about that. There were people underneath tables, crying.
Brett Thompson: I actually bought myself a Bluetooth speaker that night, just to try and do something to cheer myself up. I still have it.
The start of a new day did nothing to break the pallor over Chapel Hill and the UNC campus.
Brett Thompson: I still can’t believe they had classes the next day. You would’ve thought someone died. People were still sniffling. It was so surreal.
Jack Molloy (Sophomore at UNC): It lasted for weeks. You’re walking through the quad and you’re like, ‘Something’s off.’
Adam Sheinhaus (Sophomore at UNC): It was just a sluggish, sad, grey feeling.
Pat James: A week later, Roy did a press conference wrapping up the season. And you could tell how shaken up he still was about it.
That Tuesday, the Tar Heels returned to Chapel Hill from Houston. When they arrived back at the Smith Center, fans lined the streets and the sidewalk to welcome them back. Louis Fernandez, working for the student broadcasting program in what was then known as the School of Media and Journalism, was there to document the event.
Louis Fernandez: I wanted to try and encapsulate that moment and that feeling of heartache in a sense, and opportunity lost. As a sports fan, what’s so unique about it when you really get to know a team is you really get to know the individual players and the individual coaches and the stories. Just what led them in life to these specific moments.
It was so sad, because after everything that senior class had went through, it very much felt like they deserved that opportunity to go out on top. They deserved that moment in the sun.
Adam Lucas (Columnist, GoHeels.com): I think that might mean more to the players now than it did then. You’re not really at the point yet where you’re able to see, ‘Oh, this was good.’ It’s all just really, really bad still. That shot’s playing constantly on ESPN. Of course you love having people come out and just show that they appreciated you. I think that’s one of those things that even as time goes on, you might understand better.
But fans were unsure about the future outlook of the program. Paige and Johnson, the team’s two best players, were graduating. Without the two senior leaders, there was uncertainty as to if or when the Tar Heels would get back to the Final Four under Williams.
Jones Angell (Play-by-play commentator, Tar Heel Sports Network): That ’16 team was defined by Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. For both of those guys to move on after that year, it really did feel like the turning of a page.
Brett Thompson: You’re losing the two most important players on that team. That was the heart and soul.
Adam Lucas: I remember going up to the hotel room in Houston and telling my wife, ‘You don’t understand. We’re not gonna be that close again for a long time.’
Jack Molloy: It’s not that I didn’t believe in that team. But you didn’t even give yourself the space to have hope at that time. You just had to grieve for what you’d lost.
Pat James: I thought talent-wise, they were capable. But overcoming that demon, I just wasn’t sure how they were gonna do it.
‘Justice Has Been Served’
Jim Nantz (Play-by-play commentator, CBS Sports, April 3, 2017): And this year, the confetti is gonna fall for North Carolina! They’re not gonna be denied this time!
Jack Molloy (Junior at UNC): In a weird way, it just makes that championship so much better. It’s like, ‘justice has been served. All order is back in the world.’
Brett Thompson (Senior at UNC): That whole night, I was thinking of Villanova. All I could think about was Villanova until the Kennedy Meeks block. Definitely later in the night, it starts to sink in. ‘Damn, they just came back and won it.’ But the whole day was about Villanova for me.
Steve Kirschner (Director of Communications, UNC men’s basketball): I thought of Coach Williams and every Carolina basketball fan that had hung in there with the program for the last decade. From 2012 on, it was difficult. I just was so happy for Coach Williams. If he’d retired right then, I would’ve been happy for him.
Adam Lucas (Columnist, GoHeels.com): I remember texting with Marcus that night, just checking on him. I think that’s difficult for them. I mean, that’s their teammates and they want them to do really well, but they also really wanted to be a part of that. There definitely was a piece of you that was like, ‘Man, this is awesome. But I do wish those guys could’ve been part of this.’
Jones Angell (Play-by-play commentator, Tar Heel Sports Network): The ’17 championship really started the night they lost in ’16.
Roy Williams (Head coach, UNC men’s basketball): The feeling of inadequacy in the locker room last year is the worst feeling I’ve ever had. But, yes, this one’s fantastic. And it’s sweet.
Justin Jackson (UNC junior wing): It made it a little sweeter, going through what we did last year.
More than six years removed from that game and that season, the 2015-16 Tar Heels are still remembered. The memories dwell more on the dynamic duo of Paige and Johnson, the feel-good Final Four run, and kickstarting the 2017 team’s run to glory.
Roy Williams (Head coach, UNC men’s basketball, 2003-2021): That coach out there on that court, cutting down those nets, is really proud of his team. But I wouldn’t trade my team for anybody.
Adam Lucas (Columnist, GoHeels.com): To me, that team’s legacy is more about that whole journey that they had brought Carolina through, and all the ‘stuff,’ as Coach Williams liked to call it. Sticking it out, and wanting to be a Tar Heel and bringing Carolina back from a couple years where the Tar Heels didn’t make it as far in the tournament and weren’t official ‘national contenders.’ They brought them back right to the edge of winning the whole thing. If they don’t do that, then there is no 2017.
Pat James (Assistant Director of Athletics Communications, Elon University): All those factors all together made that team so special in a lot of ways to a lot of people.
Louis Fernandez (Executive Producer, WRAL Sports+): We’ve had moments with the notion of, ‘Carolina’s gonna fade to the background.’ But I think that senior class helped guide UNC basketball through what could’ve been a tumultuous experience. Ultimately, they ended up keeping the ship afloat.
Brett Thompson (Associate Producer, ESPN): They remembered who they are, and who they’re supposed to be.
Adam Sheinhaus (Project Manager, Delta Airlines): When that team started winning, it almost felt like a way to get away from reality. You could turn on Carolina basketball and feel some sense of normalcy. This is what Carolina basketball is supposed to be. This is what Carolina is supposed to be.
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