There was no NCAA Championship, which the North Carolina men’s basketball team has craved since falling 4.7 seconds short a season ago.
No, that comes later — if it comes at all.
But there was a trophy, and T-shirts declaring the Tar Heels as champions of the NCAA Tournament’s South Region. There was a postgame water bath for head coach Roy Williams, whose team returns to the Final Four after a 75-73 win over Kentucky.
And there was a buzzer beater, courtesy of Luke Maye, that puts UNC one step closer to avenging the last-second stunner that sparked this vengeance tour.
This isn’t the end. But for North Carolina, this is the first taste of redemption.
“We’re going to do anything we can to keep this journey going,” Theo Pinson said.
On Sunday, it took everything to keep the season alive. The top-seeded Tar Heels (31-7) trailed by five with just over five minutes left, but a 12-0 run gave them a seven-point lead with 54 seconds left. There were shades of a second-round victory over Arkansas — and UNC could nearly feel the Phoenix air.
But the No. 2 seed Wildcats (32-6) clawed their way back in a game that never saw a double-digit lead. De’Aaron Fox nailed a 3-pointer from the left corner five seconds later, and Malik Monk — who torched UNC for 47 points earlier this season — drilled a contested 3-pointer with 7.2 seconds left to tie the game.
It was shades of December, when Kentucky topped UNC in a 103-100 classic. And UNC’s quest for redemption was in peril.
“Don’t,” sophomore Kenny Williams, who was the main victim of Monk’s masterpiece from Las Vegas, remembers saying on the sidelines. “Don’t do this again.”
But there was no time for reflection. Roy Williams left no room for sorrow when his team trailed by five, yelling at his players to fight their way back. There was no difference now.
“I was just screaming, ‘Go, go, go,’” he said.
And they went. There was plenty of time for a game winner — Villanova did it in less — so Pinson charged down the court.
After Kentucky denied the inbound pass to Joel Berry, Pinson took the ball and charged down the court. Wildcat forward Derek Willis met him in the paint, so he flipped back to Maye, who stood wide open just steps behind him. There were shades of the Kris Jenkins shot — now, it was UNC’s turn to break hearts.
So Maye, with retribution riding on his shoulders, took a step back and launched the shot of his life. Two points later, the Tar Heels were regional champions.
“I don’t think we really understand what we just played in,” Pinson said.
And thus, the celebration began. Nate Britt scaled the ladder and cut down the nets, offering a piece to fellow senior Kanler Coker on his way to the locker room. Kenny Williams danced on his injured right knee, and Pinson smothered Brandon Robinson with a loving embrace. Berry, sporting two gimpy ankles, joked with a reporter before joining his teammates in the sweetest “Hark the Sound” rendition yet.
No, this isn’t the national title game. That’s still seven days away, and the Tar Heels still have to get past No. 3 seed Oregon on Saturday. But for now, a taste of redemption will do.
“It was part of our checklist to get back to the Final Four,” senior forward Isaiah Hicks said. “And we can check it.”