GLENDALE, Ariz. — Here’s the problem for North Carolina.
Yes, the Tar Heels are still hurting from last year’s buzzer-beater through the heart delivered by Villanova in the national championship game. Sure, they spent the offseason overcoming the pain and trying to channel it toward another run. And of course, they would like nothing more than to avenge that moment of defeat and despair.
But they can’t really do that.
At least not entirely. Villanova’s early departure from the tournament didn’t just end the Wildcats’ season, it thwarted any chance of North Carolina getting another chance to face them.
“I think the whole unfinished business or revenge [story line], I don’t know how you can have revenge on a team that wasn’t the person that took it from you,” junior forward Justin Jackson said this week.
So instead, the Tar Heels (31-7) were left to focus on Saturday night’s opponent, Oregon (33-5), knowing that they will never be able to undo their history but hoping to simply move past it and write a new chapter. With a more palatable ending.
“It’s a heartache that you can’t erase,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “It’s always going to be there. But I do think that once the game starts, or even the game-day preparations, I don’t think they’ll be thinking about that. I really believe they’ll just be focusing on Oregon.”
This year’s Final Four featured two teams in the first semifinal that had never been to such heights and a third in Oregon that hadn’t been here since before World War II. And then there is North Carolina, making its NCAA-record 20th appearance in the Final Four. No other school has more than 17.
You’d think that kind of experience would be beneficial. And maybe it will be. But it also means that the Tar Heels are the only team in Arizona that is playing not only an opponent on the court, but an army of memory ghosts ready to charge at any weakness they sense in the team’s psyche.
“The biggest thing was doing it for ourselves,” junior guard Joel Berry II said of reaching this year’s Final Four. “We just wanted to forget about what happened last year. That’s the biggest talk in the Final Four this year is what happened last year. Are you guys motivated from last year? I honestly — and I know my teammates feel the same way — I just want to be able to win this Final Four to forget about what happened last year.”
That may never happen. Those memories will scar forever. For decades to come, when these North Carolina players are middle-aged men, finished with their professional basketball careers or in the midst of whatever lies ahead in their lives, every spring they will turn on a television set and watch Villanova run down the court, see the pass to Kris Jenkins, and relive the agony of that shot going through the rim as time expired. Such is the fate of being on the wrong side of one of the greatest moments in NCAA Tournament history.
For this weekend, though, they are trying to avoid such visions.
“I haven’t sensed that our team has many thoughts in a negative manner about what happened last year except the final outcome,” Williams said. “And we used that as fuel to motivate us over the summer to work harder. We haven’t made it our mantra that we’re all standing around holding hands, chanting ‘4.7 seconds’ or anything like that.”
“We have to focus on what’s going on now and just forget about that shot,” Berry said. “We’re in a great position, we got ourselves back to the Final Four. We have to forget about all of that stuff that happened last year and just realize that this is for our team this year . . . I feel like we’re the best team in the country and I’ll always believe that no matter what.”