The Daily Tar Heel

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Friday December 3rd

UNC men's basketball hopes to turn heartbreak into success

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There doesn’t seem much point to it now, more than six months after the North Carolina men’s basketball team lost on a buzzer beater to Villanova in the national title game.

He’s seen the shot itself, a 25-footer from the Wildcats’ Kris Jenkins that broke UNC’s heart. It’s been hard to avoid. But the 39 minutes and 55 seconds before that sequence have gone unwatched. The highs and the lows and the furious comeback — to Williams, there’s no point in wallowing in it.

“It’s just like somebody pulled your heart out and taunts you by shaking it in front of you,” he said at UNC’s media day Tuesday. “But you’ve gotta get over it.”

What Williams has focused on from that night in April are the words he told his team afterwards — to embrace the pain and the hurt and turn them into something.

“I told them in the locker room, ‘Let’s use this as fuel to work harder in the offseason,’” Williams said. “‘Let’s use this as fuel to motivate, use this as fuel to put in that extra time to know that we were that close but we didn’t get what we wanted.’”

Williams’ team for the upcoming season has taken these words as gospel in summer workouts and the first few weeks of practice. The players know they never want to experience that kind of letdown again and are using that and other aspects of the loss as kindling for what they hope will be another successful season.

For junior forward Justin Jackson, it’s talk from others about coming up just short that stays with him the most.

“We had a really successful year as a university when it comes to athletics,” he said. “But to hear we had five teams make it to the national championship but we had three of them win, and to know that we weren’t one of those teams, it kind of hurts.”

Jackson said he hasn’t watched the game either — he’s getting around to it — but it has been on his mind all summer.

It’s been on senior forward Kennedy Meeks’ too, but for a slightly different reason.

“I think me seeing Brice (Johnson) work so hard last season and for him to fall short was really disappointing to me," Meeks said. "Him and Marcus (Paige) and Joel (James), they really deserved to win that.”

Johnson, Paige and James were the seniors on the 2015-16 squad, and each meant a great deal to the team last season — Johnson for his breakout campaign that saw him earn All-America honors, Paige for his leadership and clutch plays and James for his humble nature and sideline antics.

The fact that all three came up shy of the ultimate sendoff for their college careers has irked Meeks since the national championship game. For him, returning to that stage is as much about honoring them as it is about succeeding with the players still on the Tar Heels’ roster.

“For us to fall short only motivated us this summer to work extremely hard, probably the hardest we’ve worked since we’ve been here, on and off the court,” Meeks said. “Me personally, I’m trying to do it for those guys.”

Whatever the reason, the Tar Heels have made it a point to use the national championship loss to their advantage.

If they’re going to look back on it, they might as well use it to help them move forward.

@jbo_vernon

sports@dailytarheel.com



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