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.