Underneath the rafters of jerseys commemorating North Carolina men’s basketball giants, the 2017 national champions jogged onto the Smith Center stage.
The crowd was roaring. The UNC students taking pictures with their cell phones, the fans clad in Carolina blue, the kids who did cartwheels on the court during the hours of waiting.
With one of the nets hanging from his neck, Joel Berry pulled out his phone to capture the rambunctious Smith Center crowd, the six national championship banners looming in the rafters above and the empty spot next to 2009 that will soon — finally — be filled.
Berry’s jersey will adorn that ceiling too, one day. So will Justin Jackson’s. Right up with those of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson — the two 2016 leaders who ignited a fire that would only be satisfied by the taste of glory.
“Nobody understands this,” head coach Roy Williams said, “but the most fun as a coach is seeing the looks on your guys’ faces when they’ve accomplished something that’s very difficult.”
Just a year ago, Paige was crying under Villanova’s confetti. The Tar Heels came home to empty-hearted fans with nothing. Nate Britt remembers the Snapchat stories and Instagram posts of the UNC community as it followed the team’s journey, and the sting of the celebration that never was — snatched away in 4.7 seconds.
“We told you we were going to be back,” Theo Pinson said after stealing the microphone from Berry.
Nobody could have believed it except the players themselves, who stared defeat square in the face and took it as a challenge. Williams said their season-long promise to return added pressure — this UNC team is one of four teams to achieve redemption the season after losing the title. But for a team this motivated, those stakes didn’t matter.
This time, the Tar Heels can finally reap the rewards of all of that hard work. They can make a mosh pit in the locker room and watch videos of the 55,000 people storming Franklin Street. Williams could give Chancellor Carol Folt a four-minute lesson on how to cut the net from the hoop. And when Williams looked at his phone, it was flooded with messages of praise.
“I’m so happy for you and the team,” one text read. “You raised the ceiling to the roof tonight. Congrats. Didn’t want to bring you bad luck tonight, but I’m so happy for you. Love you, my man. Michael Jordan.”
This time, no replay video from the tournament was off-limits. The players watched them all lined up in folding chairs in front of the Smith Center crowd, swapping laughter and slaps on the shoulder during the highlights. Stilman White’s basket, Isaiah Hicks’ sleek dunks, a Theo Pinson three, Luke Maye’s buzzer beater, and of course, the Kennedy Meeks block and subsequent Jackson dunk in the final seconds of the championship.
This time, when the commotion finally calmed on Monday night in Phoenix, Berry could pull out his phone. Sitting on the team bus, he positioned his face in front of the screen and started recording a live Instagram video. For a few minutes, he sat there in front of his camera. He didn’t say much — just watched the endless stream of praising comments roll up his screen. But suddenly, he broke the quiet.
“Yeah,” Berry said. “This was for you. We had a lot of people doubting us, but this is for all of you guys who believed.”
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