“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.”