PHILADELPHIA, Pa. — After four years, Leaky Black stepped on the ladder.
He approached it slowly — the whole team took its time. After the handshake line, head coach Hubert Davis cried. Players donned Carolina blue t-shirts that read “Cut the Nets.” They threw on gray hats with “Final Four” written across them. They danced and laughed and raised their arms to a crowd of North Carolina fans migrating to the Wells Fargo Center's lower bowl.
Then, with celebrations done, tears turned to smiles and reality set in.
Black stepped on the ladder and cut down a small piece of the net. For the first time in his career, there was a reason to cut one down.
The North Carolina men’s basketball team defeated St. Peter’s, 69-49, on Sunday, earning a trip to New Orleans for the Final Four.
“His energy and his passion, his love for this program and this team,” Davis said of his veteran Tar Heel. “He’s not someone that talks a lot, but by his actions he’s a leader."
First to climb the ladder was Black, who has spent his four years in Chapel Hill playing for every sort of North Carolina team — the dominant No. 1 seed, the ACC bottom feeder, the bubble dwellers and first round loser and now, the Cinderella.
Then, there was Armando Bacot, who came to Chapel Hill a vaunted five-star expected to help revitalize losses from the previous year’s team. Things didn’t go to plan, and his three years had been spent straddling the bubble and scrapping for the hope of a moment like this.
Then there was Caleb Love, RJ Davis and Brady Manek, all of whom have spent their short UNC careers on teams that seemed to be drifting further away from the typical success that comes with wearing the blue words “North Carolina” across their chests.
But on Sunday, each of them took turns climbing the ladder.
“Me and Armando, it’s been a roller coaster the last couple years,” Black said. “Pretty much been laughed at on social media. It feels good to get the last laugh right here, but we’re not done yet.”
It’s difficult to say a program coming off an NCAA tournament appearance and four years removed from a national championship could be reeling, but for the lofty expectations placed on UNC — a program which passed Kentucky for most NCAA tournament wins on Sunday — the last few years have not met the usual standard.
Less than a year ago, Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams retired, stars left the program and Hubert Davis took the reins at his alma mater as a first-time head coach. Just two weeks ago, as UNC entered the tournament as a No. 8 seed, this year looked like it wouldn’t be much different from the previous two.
Davis has said throughout the season that his goal with this team was to give them the experiences he had at North Carolina — among them, a trip to the Final Four in his junior year.
On Sunday, improbably, his players climbed the ladder and cut down the net in celebration as he had done himself 31 years prior.
“This season is giving these guys an opportunity to see what hard work does, perseverance, resilience, togetherness,” Davis said. “To see their smiles, to see how happy they are, to see the tears of joy at the end of the game on the floor and in the locker room is something that you’ll remember for the rest of your life.”
For Bacot, despite the lopsided nature of the entire game, the realization of just what the Tar Heels accomplished didn’t set in until the final moments of the contest.
“It means everything,” he said. “People kind of pushed North Carolina to the side and said how we were done and all of this and that. I’m just so glad to make it to the Final Four finally and cement myself. We’re not done yet.”
To Bacot's point, the Tar Heels are still two wins away from hanging another banner from the Dean E. Smith Center’s rafters. What lies ahead is one of the most significant games in North Carolina history.
For the first time, the Tar Heels will face Duke in the NCAA tournament. If they win, it will be head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final game. If they lose, the Blue Devils will be one win away from tying North Carolina with six national championships.
It might be strange that this team — one that just a month ago sat squarely on the NCAA tournament bubble, and is helmed by a coach not named Smith or Williams — will be the one to play in such a game.
But North Carolina earned its trip to New Orleans. After three years of suffering, the Tar Heels have climbed the ladder once. If they find themselves climbing again on Monday night — well, Davis isn’t quite ready to talk about that yet.
“Next week is next week,” he said. “I don’t want to think about next week and lose the moment of today. There’s so much joy and there’s so much happiness and thankfulness and appreciation. I want to stay there.”
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