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Thursday June 17th

UNC seniors prepare for final ride ahead of national title game

North Carolina forward Isaiah Hicks (4) fades away over forward Oregon Dillon Brooks (24) in the teams' Final Four matchup on Saturday in Phoenix.
Buy Photos North Carolina forward Isaiah Hicks (4) fades away over forward Oregon Dillon Brooks (24) in the teams' Final Four matchup on Saturday in Phoenix.

GLENDALE, ARIZ. — The seniors on this North Carolina men’s basketball team, like all those who have come before them, say they don’t talk about it. That they don’t think about it. That, in spite of the reality about to smack them all at once, they’re not concerned with the idea that Monday night’s national championship game will be their last as Tar Heels.

Well, they’re lying.

“We were talking about it at breakfast,” Kanler Coker said Sunday afternoon. “We were actually just talking about it, like, five minutes ago.”

Oh?

“Yeah, about how this is our last practice, last tape job. It’s crazy it’s just all about to be over.”

He’s not wrong. One way or another, come Monday night, this senior class — Coker, Stilman White, Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks, and Kennedy Meeks — will strip off their jerseys one final time. They’ll toss them into a dirty laundry hamper, unlace their shoes.

Maybe then it’ll all set in.

But for now, there’s a basketball game still to be played, one final reason to tuck in those Carolina blue jerseys — and as long as that’s the case, they’ll push off any puffy talk of emotions or exits.

After all, this is the last time they’ll be able to.

“I can’t be emotional before the game,” Meeks said. “I’ve got a job to do.”

Still, even if it isn’t right there in the forefront of their memories, every last one of this year’s seniors admitted they’ve at least thought about this — about the end of everything. Meeks estimated he’s been through some 415 practices over his four years, hours turned to days spent lifting or shooting in the Smith Center.

And Monday night, it will coalesce one of two ways: Either in heartbreak, agony for the second straight year, or complete exuberance, finally summiting the highest peak in college basketball at the last possible instance.

Maybe then it will solidify, or at the very least start to show, just how we’ll remember this graduating class. It’s different than it was a season ago, when UNC legends Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson carried the team through its ACC and NCAA Tournament gauntlets. This year, none of the seniors have necessarily done that — and yet, that doesn’t diminish their impact.

This group has seen almost everything, maybe even more than Paige and Johnson before them: a still-lingering academic scandal; the death of legendary coach Dean Smith; the ultimate dagger in last season’s championship game loss to Villanova; now this, a second chance.

It’s only guaranteed that Meeks, Hicks and Britt will see the court against Gonzaga, but even so, this class has mattered. They’ve seen the waves crest and pour down heavy on them, and still they’re here.

And come Monday night, they’ll have one final shot — to make sure their class endures in history, sure, but really to give their all to UNC basketball one last time.

“This is it,” Britt said, “no matter what.”

@BrendanRMarks

sports@dailytarheel.com

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