HOUSTON — The climb to the top of the mountain isn’t easy.
There’s always a chance of slipping and falling, of the burden of expectations weighing you down and making you cling at each pitfall, your knuckles white from holding on for your life, a trickle of blood running down your wrist.
A hiccup, a sneeze or even a blink of your eyes can leave you free falling.
On Monday night at NRG Stadium, the North Carolina men’s basketball team stood a grasp away from reaching its peak, of being showered with confetti and declared national champions.
But the Villanova Wildcats stomped on the Tar Heels’ hands as they reached for the top, making a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give UNC a 77-74 loss and leaving its players and coaches with the scars from the climb.
“(The loss) sinks in when that basket goes in and you see those red lights go off and you’re on the losing end of it,” said sophomore wing Justin Jackson as he brushed the tears from his eyes.
“Just like you can’t really describe the feeling of winning, you can’t really describe the hurt you feel when you lose a game like that.”
After entering halftime with a 39-34 lead over Villanova, the Tar Heels’ seemingly unstoppable offense sputtered through the opening minutes of the second period.
And the Wildcats pounced. UNC’s defense couldn’t contain Villanova’s offense, which outscored North Carolina 33-18 through the first 14 and a half minutes of the second half to take a 67-57 lead.
But even with a cloud hanging over them, the Tar Heels still saw the summit.
“When we were down 10 in the huddle, I promised ’em if they did what I told them to do that we’d have a chance to win the game at the end of the game …” Coach Roy Williams said. “I just wish I could have done a little bit more.”
With his team trailing by six points with less than two minutes left, senior guard Marcus Paige knew ground could still be covered before the clock struck zero and the fall ensued.
North Carolina’s senior leader made a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to three points before Brice Johnson pulled the Tar Heels within one on the next possession.
And with 4.7 seconds left, after he double-clutched and heaved a shot from far behind the arc, Paige made another 3-pointer to tie the game at 74 and send the bench, the cushion-flinging crowd and all of Chapel Hill into euphoria.
“When Marcus hit the 3, I just looked at it like a sign,” said junior forward Isaiah Hicks.
“‘We’re still in this game. It was meant for us.’”
But 4.7 seconds still remained. A defensive stop still needed to be made. Overtime wasn’t guaranteed.
Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono received a pass on one end of the floor and sped to the top of the key. And as all eyes fell on him, the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament dished the ball to a trailing Kris Jenkins.
He elevated. He fired. He halted UNC’s ascent.
“That was supposed to be our moment,” Paige said.
“I’m sure it will take me a while for me to watch that game. It’s going to be impossible not see that. That shot is going to go down as one of the biggest shots in NCAA Tournament history. It’s a buzzer beater in the final game.
“I’m going to see it, and it’s going to hurt every time. It’s going to remind me of how close we were and just the margin between being there, getting fitted for a ring and cutting the net down and being the way we are right now.”
In the locker room, a towel covered the typically chatty Theo Pinson’s head. Managers and players cried. Johnson stared straight ahead, his eyes bloodshot and watery.
But the climb, as difficult and scarring as it might have been, is what this team will be remembered for.
“You had to get to this level to be considered and to be remembered,” Paige said. “There’s not a whole lot of guys that have done better than us if you think about it. It’s hard to say now because we were so close to being at the top of the mountain.
“But hanging a Final Four banner in that gym is something we’ll be proud of for the rest of our lives.”