NEW ORLEANS — When the buzzer sounded, RJ Davis put his head in his hands and let himself feel.
At that same moment, as the final whistle was blown on No. 8 seed UNC’s 72-69 loss to top-seeded Kansas in the national championship game, Caleb Love buried his head in his jersey.
Seconds later — across the court from where Davis was now sobbing into the chest of Kansas Director of Basketball Operations Fred Quartlebaum — head coach Hubert Davis walked over to Brady Manek, who had slipped on the final play.
The transfer-turned-Tar Heel looked visibly hurt, and was attempting to stand up, fighting a mixture of pain and emotion that can only come from a close loss with the stakes this high.
The rookie coach put his shoulder under Manek’s and embraced him, helping him off the court and into the future.
“That’s my job, is to support them and care for them and to love them and be there for them," Hubert Davis said.
This loss hurt for the Tar Heels. A postgame talk with their coach before the press conference began didn’t help that, at least not in the moment.
Love spoke softly and with his shoulders shrugged. RJ Davis stared down to the floor and had to prepare himself to speak. Even Hubert Davis himself gazed off into the distance in between each answer, seemingly deep in thought.
It didn’t matter that some experts thought UNC might not make the NCAA tournament two months ago. It didn’t matter that they had lost to Virginia Tech in the ACC Tournament. This team had spent the last three weeks playing the best basketball it had ever played, and it led them all the way from the No. 8 seed to the national championship game.
This was a team that had forgotten the weight of expectation and outside noise long ago. They were playing for each other now, in the face of every pundit and critic who said they couldn’t get this far.
Each step of the way, they defied the odds and rose to the occasion.
They just wanted to do it one more time.
“We all really wanted to win,” junior forward Armando Bacot said. “We came this far, and this was a huge goal for us, was to just hang up a banner. And we just really wanted to win.”
So yeah, it hurts. Expectations be damned, a heartbreaking loss like that won’t ever be painless.
But don’t think for a second that they’re disappointed. Hurting, sure — but not disappointed.
This was a team that shocked the world by defeating the Duke Blue Devils in Mike Krzyzewski’s last-ever home game. This was a team that ran the NCAA tournament gauntlet, defeating top-seeded Baylor and a powerhouse UCLA squad, before Love himself ended Krzyzewski’s career in the Final Four with the most ludicrous shot he may ever hit in his life.
And this team did all that while the world said it couldn’t, over and over again.
“I can’t remember a time in my life where I should be disappointed, but I’m just filled with so much pride,” Hubert Davis said. “I’m so proud of these guys.”
All season, through the highs and lows of ACC and tournament play, the rookie coach has repeated phrases and sayings as mantras for his team. “Energy, effort, toughness,” “plant our feet, stand our ground, fight,” “throw the first punch” and more have all become parts of North Carolina basketball’s lexicon.
But in the tournament and the Final Four, a new one arose — the “experience.” The first-year head coach wanted his players to have “experiences” they could remember, to “experience” the results of their hard work, smart play, togetherness and toughness.
Even in the locker room after the loss, Davis harped on the importance of experiences for his team and himself.
“Along the way,” he said, “as they were experiencing it, they were giving me more stories and testimonies and memories by just having a front-row seat to be around them.”
So don’t let the pain fool you. Don’t mistake the tears and anguish for anger and frustration. Those emotions aren’t signs of what was — they’re signs of what could’ve been.
This team saw what could happen when it tuned out the noise and played like a unit. Without that weight of expectation, they saw that their ceiling was, at the end of the day, limitless. That belief, that drive, led them to do the impossible, again and again.
After experiencing every monumental high, clutch bucket and ecstasy-inducing win as a team, they’re now left to experience this desolate moment the same way — together.
Maybe that’ll ease the pain.
“It hurts for us to get this far and come up short like this, with everything we went through,” Love said. “But you know, the positive thing is, I wouldn’t want to go through this with anybody else.”
@dthsports | email@example.com
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