Whatever you were expecting, it probably wasn’t that.
In a game that won’t soon be forgotten in Chapel Hill, fans and players alike endured an emotional rollercoaster Tuesday night against Miami.
When the dust had settled, Joel Berry II and Theo Pinson trudged off the Smith Center court for the last time. They knew all too well that their final memory from the building, that has provided so many memorable moments over the last four years, will be a 91-88 loss.
It was a far cry from a little over two hours earlier, when the game got underway amidst a celebratory atmosphere. Berry and Pinson, two of UNC’s most beloved athletes in recent memory, were honored before tip-off, along with fellow seniors Kane Ma and Aaron Rohlman. It’s a graduating class that has been through thick and thin, and the love from the stands for the departing players was palpable.
Things got off to a good enough start, as seven early points from Cameron Johnson helped the No. 9 Tar Heels to an 18-10 lead in the first eight minutes. For the rest of the period, though, UNC fell asleep at the switch.
It took Miami (21-8, 10-7 ACC) barely four minutes to turn the game on its head. Seemingly out of nowhere, Ebuka Izundu took control down low, making quick work of Luke Maye and Sterling Manley. The 6-foot-10 Charlotte native scored 12 consecutive points for the Hurricanes that were bookended by 3-pointers.
Suddenly, the visitors held a commanding 28-21 lead. For the rest of the half, UNC (22-8, 11-6 ACC) threatened to close the gap but could never quite deliver. Every time they seemed on the brink of seizing back momentum, Miami was able to come up with an answer.
A dreadful final minute for UNC on both sides of the ball allowed Miami to stretch the lead from three to eight going into halftime.
It seems absurd to think a season home finale could be considered a trap game, and yet the Tar Heels’ performance in the first half was shockingly complacent. Riding a six-game winning streak, and with the final game of the regular season at Cameron Indoor Stadium looming on Saturday, the team never really got out of first gear in the opening 20 minutes. The pregame festivities only served to reinforce that mindset.
Whether it was because of overconfidence or just belief in their team, it felt like the fans in attendance never truly thought UNC would lose this game.
The second half started the same way the first half ended for North Carolina: very poorly. Six unanswered points for Miami, capped off by an emphatic Dewan Huell dunk, extended their lead to 14, prompting a rare Roy Williams timeout.
“I told them they’ve really made it a lot more difficult now,” Williams said after the game. “The kids still had to play. It had gone from eight to 14, so it was ugly, and I was just trying to get them to calm down.”
Whatever Williams said in that timeout, it worked. Just a couple minutes later, after an uncharacteristically sloppy turnover from Theo Pinson allowed Chris Lykes to extend Miami’s lead to 16 with an open three, UNC finally began to click.
It started with a Johnson catch-and-shoot three, followed by a tough layup by Berry. When Maye hit a three that hit every last square inch of the rim before reluctantly falling in, the boisterous home crowd knew their team wasn’t going down without a fight.
Just as in the first half, however, UNC couldn’t provide that definitive momentum shift. Miami continued to plug away on offense, and the clock continued to run. With less than five minutes left, the Tar Heels still faced a 10-point deficit.
It was around that time Berry decided to take matters into his own hands. The senior guard assisted Kenny Williams on a three before draining one of his own to cut the lead to four with less than four minutes left. A minute and a half later, he knocked down another three to make it a two-point game.
And yet, despite having the crowd and momentum on their side, the Tar Heels let a number of great chances go begging. Pinson missed what looked like an easy layup coming down the stretch, and Maye and Johnson both missed opportunities to tie the game at the free throw line in the last two minutes.
After both teams traded free throws in the final 60 seconds, it looked like UNC was going to come up just short in its comeback bid. Then, Berry ignited the Smith Center one last time.
Pinson rolled the ball to Berry off the inbounds pass with 9.2 seconds left on the clock. He picked it up just before half court, took five dribbles as he made his way to the top of the arc, and put up a contested three as the sold-out crowd held its collective breath.
The stadium had been on the brink of exploding all game, and explode it did. The Tar Heel faithful let out a euphoric roar that rocked the Chapel Hill night. But for the fans that weren’t too busy celebrating, an unsettling feeling crept up as they looked at the clock. It showed 4.1 seconds left. They had seen this before.
Some UNC fans might say they’ve gotten over the 2016 national championship loss, particularly after last year’s triumph in the same game. However, there’s no feeling quite as devastating in sports as being so close to the ultimate prize and having it snatched away. Something like that never really leaves you.
There’s no doubt that flashbacks of that moment were playing in the minds of more than a few folks in the stadium as Ja’Quan Newton picked up the basketball, sprinted down the court, and let fly from behind the top right corner of the arc. The rest, as they say, is history.
It felt almost unfair that Berry and Pinson had to speak after losing in such a manner. Berry stepped up first, and apologetically delivered his first line.
“I know it was a tough loss," he said. "I don’t know why, but people love to hit game-winners on us like that.”
It was greeted with a sad chuckle from the fans who stayed to bid farewell to their heroes. But the mood transitioned quickly from shell-shocked to reminiscent, in part thanks to a typically lighthearted speech from Pinson, who held back tears as he thanked his head coach.
“I don’t know if there’s any other coach in the country that would let me be Theo,” he said. “Letting me be me has meant the world to me.”
Roy Williams was perhaps the most emotional of them all, shouldering the blame for the loss in his speech at center court. As much as Williams has shaped his two senior stars, it’s clear they’ve shaped him just as much.
“Do you realize how fortunate I feel to have coached Joel Berry and Theo Pinson for four years?” he tearfully asked reporters at his postgame press conference. “It doesn’t get much better than that guys.”
So, like all things must, the home careers of UNC’s beloved leaders have come to an end. While their curtain call comes in bittersweet circumstances, in four years, they’ve provided some of the most memorable moments in the history of a storied program, and they know there’s still time for one last glorious triumph.
“I know we lost tonight,” Berry said as he ended his senior speech. “But as long as we have me and Theo leading this team, don’t count us out.”