New Orleans — Armando Bacot’s right ankle twisted yet again in the national title game and had no more support to offer him. He’d already spent the better part of the last 24 hours getting it ready for this game, and with the ball down by 1, the Tar Heels were running out of chances with 50 seconds left.
Bacot stubbornly refused to accept the betrayal, pulling himself off the ground where he’d briefly crumpled as play went on at the other end and, face showing the pain of every movement, tried to hop to where play had continued.
That one moment so neatly encapsulated this season for North Carolina, one that started with head-scratching defeats and blowout losses and questions about toughness and ended with an improbable, magical run that came a few breaks short.
Bacot had said he’d have to be without a right leg.
Less than two months ago, former UNC forward and current Pitt assistant Jason Capel made his feelings about the Tar Heels known.
Capel, in that moment, was right.
After that moment, though?
Carolina decided they weren’t going to be that team anymore.
Caleb Love had twisted his ankle, too. Twice. Brady Manek took multiple shots to the face. Puff Johnson threw up after getting hit in the stomach and was already dealing with an aggravated hip injury.
Playing through injuries is one thing. Plenty of players do that, especially this time of year.
Earlier this season, it would have taken a feather to knock UNC down. By season’s end? It would take a bulldozer.
All year long, when UNC was rolling, they looked unbeatable.
But they weren’t often rolling and they were often quite beatable. And even the slightest setback would send them spinning.
Bacot was like that when his Carolina career began. He would have great games and then disappear. He was on one of the worst Carolina teams of the last 50 years as a freshman. His lack of confidence was evident, and he’d often get so lost in his own head that he wouldn’t be seen for lengthy stretches.
Now, though? That player seems a world away.
The freshman version of Bacot would not have thought twice about coming out of the game with a hurt ankle.
The junior version of him didn’t think twice, either.
“I don’t think there was any difficulty. We all really wanted to win. We came this far and this was a huge goal for us was to just hang up a banner,” Bacot said. “And we just really wanted to win. I really wouldn’t let anything stop us from getting to that point.”
Trying and losing is sometimes harder than not trying, because at least you can say you didn’t care. It’s what we regular folk deal with on a day to day basis. Who wants to try to make friends if you could get rejected? Who wants to go on a date if it can end in heartbreak?
But without the risk, there is no reward.
Carolina knew it had to commit itself fully to every play and every possession to get where it is. And that’s what it did, starting at least in part with that Pitt loss and continuing to grow, that sense of grit, toughness, perseverance.
Every time things seemed bleak, every time it seemed like things were over for UNC in this NCAA Tournament, they were not over. UNC had an answer always.
And it tried to have one again in the national title game.
UNC had a mini-version of its game against Baylor, one where it nearly blew a 25-point lead.
This time around, their biggest first-half lead was 16 and they led by 15 at the break. UNC never shot well, though, and that continued as the game went on. But they stopped rebounding their own missed shots.
Still, Kansas was always going to have a run in it. Carolina had an answer, but ultimately, not enough of one.
There was a lot of talk leading up to this game that because fo the win over Duke, UNC was playing with house money. There’s truth to that, of course.
But not for Carolina’s players and coaches. Sure, they weren’t supposed to be in this national championship. But they were in it. It’s hard to get to that stage of the NCAA Tournament no matter how good you are. It’s possible that no UNC player returns to it.
House money is for the fans. The players don’t want any of it.
They just wanted to win.
RJ Davis’ eyes were red and puffy. Davis, who was so magical against Duke and Baylor, couldn’t manage to score enough in this one to lead his team to a win.
Puff Johnson sobbed as the Tar Heels walked off the court. Just a freshman, he’ll have a chance to get back to the title game. But ask his older brother Cam how easy it is to get there.
He had a heroic performance, one that called to mind Grayson Allen’s star turn in the 2015 national title game. But it wasn’t enough.
“I can honestly just say that I gave it everything I had. And that’s what I try to do each and every game and each and every day in life,” Johnson said.
Until his vomit had been cleaned off the Superdome floor, he had indeed left everything he had on the court.
Caleb Love, who couldn’t repeat his role as hero as his 3-pointer missed that would have tied it, stared straight down during the postgame press conference. Until he had to talk about his teammates.
“It hurts for us to get this far and come up short like this, everything we went through. But the positive thing is I wouldn’t want to go through this with anybody else,” Love said, trailing off as his eyes filled with tears.
Hubert Davis is an emotional man. Leaky Black said on Sunday that he at times cries before games. Not national title games or Final Four games — just regular old games.
Davis, like any good father, wants his players to equal and then pass his accomplishments.
In Year 1, his team did that, getting to a national title game that Davis’ teams never did, falling a game short in 1991.
It’s hard to know if Davis has grown as a coach or not, or at least in the X and O department. Because we don’t know how he was before. But he clearly has gotten the hang of many aspects of being a head coach, and especially once he got the last element down — getting a team to want to do everything it takes to win.
And he loved them. Fiercely, and without reservation.
He wanted them to have the types of moments he did. He helped lead them there. But he got to share in them too.
As he looked out in the locker room at a sea of puffy eyes and faces in hands, he remembered where they had come from. A program in transition, a program in doubt, players that couldn’t cut it, an unknown coach.
Now, he’s gone to a national title game in his first year and has shown the world that his players are special. Maybe it’s because they are special, but it’s also because Davis himself is.
“I told them this after the game that my desperation for them to have those experiences in a Carolina uniform was very important to me. I was very thankful that I feel like this year they were able to have a number of experiences that they could grab on and to lean on and to smile about,” Davis said. “I can’t remember a time in my life where I should be disappointed, but I’m just filled with so much pride. I’m so proud of these guys of what they have done for themselves individually, as a team, the way that they have represented our university, this program, our community.
“I can’t ask for them to do any more than what they have done. And I am extremely proud of each one of them.”
Whether it was Bacot dragging his useless ankle down the court to try to make a play or Johnson literally vomiting, they left all they had out on the floor in New Orleans.
And it’s a harbinger of what’s to come in Chapel Hill.
“Just having Coach Davis as a coach, he’s been amazing all year. And everybody on our coaching staff has been great. And just this program, we’ve all loved being here all year and just playing for Coach Davis,” Bacot said.
Then, just before he and his teammates and head coach left the final press conference of the college basketball season, he added:
“This won’t be the last time y’all will see this program here.”