The season ended just as it had begun — with the North Carolina Tar Heels helpless, held hostage by a decision that wasn’t theirs to make, yet had the power to change everything.
Cloaked in doubt. Draped by controversy. All they could do was wait.
The answer was unadulterated pain. Tears trickled from coaches down to players down to student assistants. There wasn’t a single locker-room eye that hadn’t been reddened by the uncompromising finality of the officials’ decision. The game was over — season over — 85-83 in the third round of the NCAA Tournament . Sunday’s duel didn’t end on a last-second shot, a heave across the court, a free throw or an in-bounds pass. It ended with instant replays, faulty clock operation and a referee’s decision.
Freshman guard Nate Britt simply hadn’t called timeout with enough seconds to spare, despite what he saw on the scoreboard as he crossed half-court. The clock had started too late — and, for sixth-seeded UNC (24-10), stopped ticking too soon.
“You always feel like you have a shot,” said sophomore guard Marcus Paige , who struggled to hold back tears in the UNC locker room. “If they would have given us 0.1 seconds, I feel like we would have had a chance.”
For Paige, the clock may as well have ended 31 seconds earlier. With the game tied 81-81, Paige drove the lane past a screening James Michael McAdoo then tried to feed it back to him in mid-air. He missed wildly, giving the No. 3 seed Cyclones (28-7) the ball and setting up an easy layup for Iowa State's DeAndre Kane on the other end.
It’s a play that Paige, reliable in game-deciding moments, typically makes. He had been the Tar Heels’ savior time and time again this season. But he blamed himself for the loss.
As he spoke, he grabbed at his left arm, pinching and releasing, pinching and releasing. He shivered as though he were sitting in a freezer.
“I just didn’t make the play,” he said, breaking up mid-sentence, then stopping to compose himself.
No one in UNC’s locker room put the blame on Paige. Or Britt. Or the officials for their decision. No one blamed J.P. Tokoto , who let Kane drive past him to deliver the game-winning shot. There was no finger pointing in the slightest.
As UNC players sat solemnly in front of their lockers, assistant coach Hubert Davis sat hunched over in an adjacent room, sobbing. Former Tar Heel Danny Green, now a San Antonio Spur , was in the locker room comforting Paige, senior Leslie McDonald — anyone and everyone. At one point, he grabbed Britt and said, “Chin up, Britt. You’ve got a lot of basketball left.”
“They’re really hurting,” said coach Roy Williams. “I told them to use this feeling as fuel to motivate themselves.”
There’s plenty of reason for UNC to be hopeful going into next year — the Tar Heels were a young team, were dealt their fair share of adversity and made the Big Dance despite it.
But it’ll take time for UNC to be able to reflect.
“Going back to class tomorrow, there’s no practice at the Smith Center,” Paige said. “And I love this group of guys so much that it’s going to be hard to accept the fact that 100-some practices and all the shootarounds and all the days of lifting weights and coming together — it’s done.
“It’s a memory.”