It was coming. Just about everyone in the Smith Center knew it.
On Saturday night, North Carolina fell again. This time, to Virginia, 64-62. But it wasn’t about the fifth consecutive loss — only the ninth time in program history the Tar Heels have lost five in a row, but already the second time this season. It was about the way it happened.
For the fifth time this year, UNC came up short in a contest that was decided in the final minute of regulation or overtime.
So, when the Cavaliers inbounded the ball, one point down with 10.3 seconds to go, everyone knew what was coming. And when Tomas Woldetensae collected a pass from Kihei Clark in the left corner, took one dribble as Leaky Black went flying by, and shot a three, it was almost as if it was already written.
“It’s not even disbelief,” junior guard Andrew Platek said. “You just knew the shot was going in at the end.”
What was surprising, though, were the events that led up to that moment.
The same group that looked like it had thrown the towel in on its season just four days ago in a lackluster effort at Wake Forest looked rejuvenated. First-year guard Cole Anthony played under control for most of the night, finishing with 17 points and five assists. Junior forward Garrison Brooks led all scorers with 20 points and hit several jumpers, including a 3-pointer that sent the crowd into a frenzy with eight minutes left.
And how could you forget Christian Keeling?
After struggling to find a rhythm for much of the year, he made UNC’s most important play of the night. Woldetensae fouled the graduate transfer guard as he shot a 3-pointer from the right wing with a little over 10 seconds left and the Tar Heels down by two points. Then, as fans collectively held their breath, Keeling knocked down all three free throws.
“He’s a big-time player,” Anthony said. “He’s gonna make those plays.”
Out of all players, it was Keeling who was almost the hero. Once again, the Tar Heels stepped up in ways they hadn’t before, but it wasn’t enough.
It’s hard to believe in curses or black magic or bad mojo, whatever you want to call it. But Brooks admitted “it’s tough” not to think about why his team can’t catch a break.
Though they hung their heads in post-game interviews, none of the Tar Heels, including head coach Roy Williams, are ready to accept their season for what it’s been. No matter how these games continue to play out.
“He’ll never quit,” Brooks said of Williams. “That’s one of the best things. Seeing him come into work everyday the same way, same energy as the first practice, really excited to do this job.”
From the outside looking in, it’s easy to wonder why this team wouldn’t lose hope. A little over two weeks ago, it was Anthony’s return from injury that was going to be the difference-maker, that was expected to vault the Tar Heels into a last-minute conversation for an NCAA Tournament bid.
That ship has long sailed. UNC must win out in the ACC Tournament next month to punch its ticket to the big dance.
But, Anthony himself, like his teammates, doesn’t want to succumb to defeat.
“This is insane,” he said. “I’ve never had a season like this of basketball. It’s really deflating. But at the end of the day, our season’s not over.”
The reality is this: Saturday night, as Woldetensae’s shot floated through the air, UNC’s year became one step closer to being all but finished.
And in that moment, everyone knew it.
“I’m like, ‘Just not again,’” Brooks said. “It’s just our luck.”
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