UNC down, 71-70.
“We definitely got a chance,” Paige said. “The thing that goes through your mind when you cut it to that one-point lead is, ‘What do we have to do to get over that hump?’ In that case, it was just get one stop.”
“And we couldn’t do it.”
The Badgers wouldn’t let go of that one-point lead. They’d hold on to deliver UNC (26-12, 11-7 ACC) its first Sweet 16 loss since 1992.
But Paige spoke as if he knew it shouldn’t haven’t come down to that — his team clinging on to dear life, fighting for its season with less than a minute left.
For about 33 minutes on Thursday, the Tar Heels played to the caliber of an Elite 8 team. But then came the second-half Wisconsin run. One that mirrored those that UNC has struggled to combat all year long. The Badgers reeled off nine unanswered points to flip a four-point deficit into a five-point lead with about five minutes to play.
Wisconsin’s push — slowly but surely — turned finality into reality. Desmond Hubert, one of UNC’s four seniors, could feel it.
“It’s kind of hard to sit there and watch and just be powerless to everything,” said Hubert whose four-year career at UNC ended in February when he tore his ACL. “It’s just hard sitting there watching them go up. Everything’s going good, and to have it slip away like that — it’s just really hard.”
After the Badger run, UNC would never lead again.
So there the Tar Heels were: almost, but not quite there. They’d held Wisconsin big man Frank Kaminsky to a hard-fought 19 points on 5-for-11 shooting but surrendered 23 to Badger guard Sam Dekker.
UNC had a season-low four turnovers but was out-rebounded 36-25.
“I think the toughness that they showed today was really something,” said Coach Roy Williams. “It’s strange, the difference between winning and losing is so small.”
Kind of like a one-point deficit: the harsh realization, at times, that something is so close, yet oh so far.
“We were so close to being an elite team,” Paige said. “But this year, it was kind of disappointing because we never really grew to the point where we made that leap. Where we made that step.”
“And that hurts to say.”