The words certainly rang true. In the 2016-2017 season, the last time North Carolina won the national championship, the team was the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament and played Duke in the semifinals. Just like this season, the Tar Heels lost that game.
In fact, of the three national championships (2005, 2009, 2017) of the Roy Williams era in Chapel Hill, North Carolina lost in the ACC Tournament semifinals in each of the accompanying years.
Little was certainly frustrated after missing a chance to deliver No. 2 seed UNC (27-6) the victory in Friday's game, however. His dunk with 47 seconds left gave North Carolina the one-point advantage over Duke (29-5) in a back-and-forth affair.
But one possession later, Duke took the lead right back on a putback layup by first-year forward Zion Williamson for his 31st point of the night with 31 seconds remaining. The two heavyweight programs continued to trade blows.
Nineteen seconds later, Duke forward R.J. Barrett stood at the free throw line with a chance to give Duke a three-point lead. He missed both free throws, and first-year guard Coby White raced down the court with a chance to win the game for UNC.
White’s off-balanced jumper ricocheted off the rim, and Little got his hand on the ball and redirected it at the hoop to no avail. So one can understand why the first-year forward couldn’t help but think back in the locker room to how close the Tar Heels were to getting the win.
Yet, Little took solace in Kenny Williams’ advice, words that harped on a bigger picture.
“This adversity doesn’t mean much,” Little recalled Williams telling him. “It’s nice to be ACC champions, but we’ve got our eyes on a larger prize.”
Williams wasn’t the only one who seemed to put the loss in perspective. Sterling Manley, a sophomore forward, also reminisced back on the last time UNC lost to Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals.
“I mean, last time we won a national championship, it was 2017, right?” Manley said. “And didn't we lose in these semifinals? So we'll be fine.”
When the NCAA Tournament bracket is unveiled on Sunday, it’s unclear if UNC will still be on the one-seed line, as was the case entering the game, according to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi. It’s possible the Blue Devils will leapfrog the Tar Heels for the last No. 1 seed.
Yet none of that seemed to matter to the players. No matter who you spoke to in the locker room after the loss on Friday night, the message was the same: this team has battled back before and the only thing that matters is winning the ultimate title — a national championship.
“The best thing about this team is the way we face adversity,” junior guard Seventh Woods said.
“So we lost tonight, but we just gotta go back, tweak some things up, and six more games really, we just gotta pull it out.”
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