Sports

I Have No Idea What North Carolina Fans Are Supposed to Do With That

Puff Johnson walks off the court with his eyes closed and his arms crossed behind his head.
Puff Johnson: not sure how to deal. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

A strange but reasonable thought before Monday night’s men’s basketball national championship game was that North Carolina didn’t need to win it. Really! It might sound like an absurd idea on its face, because sports are fundamentally about winning. But this game felt like a rare exception. Not that a loss wouldn’t be devastating. For UNC’s players, this might be their only shot at a college championship. And even the Carolina fans who have enjoyed three titles this century would be bummed, because losing the ultimate game on the sports calendar is a massive letdown.

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Think about it, though. Their opponent, the University of Kansas, has an elite team every single year, and any Jayhawks season that doesn’t end with confetti is a disappointment. That is usually the case in Chapel Hill, too, but 2022 was as close to a rebuilding year as UNC can have. The Heels were a nonfactor the prior two seasons, and this was Hubert Davis’ first go-round after replacing the legendary Roy Williams.

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And so, incremental gains were what the Heels and their fans could reasonably expect this year. They were 18–8 and 10–5 in the ACC when they lost to a miserable Pitt team in mid-February. But then they started winning a lot. And in the span of just four weeks, they painted the Mona Lisa of rivalry spite, a feat that will never, ever find an equal in college basketball. In early March, they beat Duke in Mike Krzyzewski’s going-away party at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Then they played well enough in the tournament to get another matchup with Duke in the national semifinals, upon which they stuffed Coach K into a locker once again, ensuring that the last of his 42 seasons would go down as one in which UNC sent him away in despair twice.

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There is no topping that. Titles come and go. Both Duke and UNC will surely win some more. But humbling a rival so thoroughly confers lifelong bragging rights, which are really the point of all this anyway. When I expressed before the game that UNC could lose to Kansas by 100 points and it would barely make a dent in Heels fans’ psyches, I heard back from a lot of them, and they told me: Yeah, that’s true.

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That, again, was before the title game. What do you do with what actually happened on Monday night, though? UNC didn’t lose by 100, but by three. And it wasn’t a garden-variety three-point loss. The Tar Heels led by 16 late in the first half before ending up on the business end of the biggest comeback in title game history: 72–69, Jayhawks, with Bill Self stating his case as the best coach of the century and UNC left in grief.

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The Tar Heels surpassed every expectation, and their fans can and will revisit those two wins over Duke until the end of time. They also just took a defeat that lives in the inner circle of the most crushing title game L’s ever, two nights after sending Krzyzewski to the moon. What I’m saying is that I have no idea how UNC fans are supposed to go about their days on Tuesday, because they just went through an unprecedented emotional science experiment. No sports fan base has ever taken such a hard bit of whiplash in such a short time. It’s like if Team USA had won the Miracle on Ice and topped it off by losing to Finland.

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An aggravating factor is that, somehow, “largest blown lead ever in a title game” doesn’t fully capture how draining the second half had to be for UNC and its supporters. Certainly, it’s not fun to let a 16-point cushion evaporate. But that happened in just 10 minutes of game time, when Kansas took the lead on a Remy Martin 3-pointer and then got a quick steal, bucket, and free throw from Jalen Wilson to go up 56–50. If UNC had folded up shop at that point, maybe this would somehow be easier to take? I don’t know.

But the Heels fought gamely. Reserve guard Puff Johnson (season average: 2.8 points) had nine in the second half. Scoring forward Brady Manek battled through at least two instances of getting hit in the face. Guard RJ Davis played all 40 minutes, and by the end looked totally gassed. Center Armando Bacot quite literally left it on the floor, banging around all night with Kansas’ David McCormack before reinjuring his ankle and exiting, with 15 points and 15 rebounds to his name, with less than a minute remaining.

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UNC had a bunch of chances to flip the scoreboard. Down three with 14 seconds left, Caleb Love and then Johnson missed contested 3’s. After an offensive rebound, Manek passed the ball into his team’s bench. Carolina got another look after KU’s Dajuan Harris Jr. stepped out of bounds, but Love’s final heave just glanced off the rim. That perhaps introduced a third emotion into the evening, to go along with the euphoria and the sadness: pride that the Heels’ ass-tired players punched so hard until the end.

What does someone who cares deeply about a sports team do with all of that? There will not be a road map, because the bulk tonnage of UNC feelings doesn’t have a clear analogue. Maybe it helps that Tar Heels fans can point to a similar (or even more) painful loss: 2016’s title game, when Villanova’s Kris Jenkins nuked them with a buzzer-beater. It might also help that videos of both triumphs over Duke will be readily available forever. Or maybe none of it will be enough, and there will be a unique sting to the failure to place the cherry on top of the rivalry sabotage sundae that UNC had so artfully been building. Maybe all of these emotions will coexist.

The Tar Heels entered the title game playing with house money, given what they’d just wreaked on Duke and how their season had turned so dramatically. But on Monday night, that money caught fire, and then the entire house burned down. Good luck processing the emotional insurance claims that will be pouring in from Chapel Hill.

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