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UNC basketball: it’s never been easier

It never gets easier, does it? I said to myself, after the game on Saturday, that everything else would be the icing on an already unexpected cake. Hell, I thought the same thing after the first weekend of the tournament. At the start of this year, I thought the ceiling for this team was a respectable Sweet Sixteen appearance in a year in which the team was largely unrecognized and even discussed as a bubble team a few months ago. Reaching the Final Four was an unexpected blessing. Beating Duke to earn a spot in the national title match was almost unthinkable. Going into the halftime break with a fifteen-point lead over the Jayhawks was impossible to imagine, but this team did it.

Losing in the national title match is a tough pill to swallow. I’ve never experienced it first hand, obviously, but it’s very difficult to watch. Armando Bacot finished the game watching, as did I. Living and dying in those fractions of seconds between net and rim, making impossible geometric calculations involving arc and velocity rate as the ball floated through the air and the last precious seconds slipped away from the basketball season -ball 2021-2022.

Armando Bacot wasn’t supposed to be watching. A dominant player like him, bordering on a force of nature at times, was supposed to end the season on the pitch with a chance to influence the outcome. A person like him, an outstanding ambassador on and off the pitch for the program we all cherish, deserved to be out there on the pitch with his teammates. The Iron Five as a whole deserved the hero’s ending, that scene right before the credits roll and the music kicks in, that last bit of dialogue that wraps everything up in a nice little arc. This music was supposed to be “One Shining Moment”, and the confetti was supposed to be a different color. Caleb Love, having already been a hero in the Final Four, deserved a shot at being the most outstanding player. Leaky Black deserved to see his excellent defensive work hold up in the second half. Brady Manek deserved to have his faith in Coach Davis and the North Carolina program rewarded with a ring and nylon band. RJ Davis deserved to be rewarded for carrying the team through those few notable droughts in this tournament. Puff Johnson has played well enough to earn a ring to match his brother’s. Three of the five starters finished with double-doubles; this type of performance usually means you deserve to win.

It never gets easier, I’m afraid. The exceptional luck that we, as a fanbase, have made it to even enough national title matches to be able to cite multiple heartbreaks between them doesn’t lessen the sting. The Heels fell to the wire against a very good Kansas team, but it hurts no less. It’s a tough thing to watch, the team we’ve come to love over the season just falls short; hobbling across the finish line just three points behind the national champion Jayhawks.

The Tar Heels finally ran out of gas. It’s a cliché to say that the team left everything on the ground, but I’ve never been one to be afraid of kitsch, and in the event that a player ends up on the pitch, I think it’s is justified. The Iron Five (or Steel Six if we want to make Puff Johnson an honorary member for his standout performance last night) fought like hell to pull the game off the brink after Kansas blitzed to start the second half. -time, even with rolled ankles, head injuries and fouls. There’s no shame in being right next to a very good, very deserving Kansas team, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still hurt.

In the next few days, there will be a lot to say about this team. There will be departures as Brady Manek heads into the next chapter of his career, having made Oklahoma and North Carolina fans extremely proud. There will probably be other guys who won’t be here next season, and we’ll always remember their names and what they gave to make this season so special. There will be plays written about Hubert Davis’ triumph as head coach and the unimaginable run that team ended the season on. There will be dissections of the end game, an analysis of every “what if” that obscures the time between the final buzzer and the denunciation of the next season.

It was an absolute pleasure to see this team finish the season, and there is something to be proud of. Losing a national title game will never be easier, no, but it will always be fun to remember the race. Even today is a good day to be a Tar Heel.