NEW ORLEANS – Under the brightest lights, the wild train made its final stop.
In a span of just five weeks, North Carolina’s indestructible “Iron Five” starting lineup ran on its own type of fuel. Each Brady Manek scream, impossible Caleb Love three or crucial Armando Bacot rebound transformed the Tar Heels from NCAA Tournament dreamers to a group 20 minutes away from a national title.
But on Monday night, after surrendering the largest comeback in championship game history, the Tar Heels sat stunned and looked for the magical juice that made them victorious in their recent slew of epic bouts.
When they went to refill the tank, there was nothing left to add.
In a 72-69 loss to Kansas, the fuel that propelled North Carolina to the grand stage was finally depleted.
“It hurts for us to get this far and come up short like this with everything we’ve been through,” Love said.
Once a 15-point halftime lead transformed into a six-point deficit midway through the second half, the Tar Heels quickly became entrenched in an uphill battle. UNC just didn’t have the legs to make the climb.
Following two performances of late-game heroics, Love shot 4-18 after the break while Kansas’ Remy Martin nailed dagger after dagger to push the Jayhawks ahead. In the waning seconds, just a few steps removed from the spot he buried his game-clinching shot against Duke, Love let it fly for a chance at overtime. Instead, the ball promptly drew nothing but air as the Kansas celebration began.
Sophomore guard RJ Davis — despite making two straight shots to trim the Jayhawks lead to two with under 10 minutes to play — made only five of his 17 shots and was held scoreless for the remainder of the contest.
“We were just trying to remain positive and things weren’t going our way,” Davis said. “The shots that we usually make we were just missing, coming up short.”
The fatigue was contagious, as it spread to even the most unlikely of suspects.
After senior wing Leaky Black slammed the basket stanchion and left the court in frustration following his fourth foul under 14 minutes to play, the seldom used sophomore forward Puff Johnson stepped in and scored 11 points in the most important 18 minutes of his season.
But all at once, he hunched to the floor after suffering a literal gut punch that ceased all the team's budding momentum, ending his night.
And finally, there was the Tar Heels' anchor.
Two days after vowing to “thug it out” and play through an ankle injury suffered in the final minutes against Duke, Bacot went through roundclock treatment to get on the floor for the biggest game of his life. Minutes before tip-off, he could barely get his feet off the ground.
He notched a double-double in the first half alone, but the pain was too much to overcome, especially when tasked with slowing down the Jayhawks’ David McCormack on the low block.
“I really couldn’t, the whole game, get the push on anything on my post-ups, defensively, anything,” Bacot said. “It was just like I kind of was out there and it was just hard for me to really stand my ground.”
With his team trailing by one with less than a minute remaining, Bacot drove right hoping to get a clean look at the rim.
Instead, he crashed to the floor and as the Jayhawks ran the ensuing break. Jumping down the court with a clear grimace on his face and flat-tired ankle dangling in the air, the only thing that flashed across his eyes was the dream of a title slipping away.
“I really couldn’t put any weight down on my right leg,” Bacot said. “Right then and there I knew I was probably done at that point.”
Immediately after Bacot limped off the floor for good, the undersized Brady Manek was forced to wall up against the Jayhawks' imposing 250-pound forward. Despite pushing him to the middle of the paint, McCormack extended for a hook shot that would ultimately be the final bucket of the night before the red and blue confetti fell from the Superdome sky.
After two seasons of not having a “North Carolina basketball experience,” Bacot tried to will his team to the promised land, but it just wasn’t enough.
“It’s not just his effort tonight,” head coach Hubert Davis said. “The effort that he displayed tonight, he’s done it all year consistently.”
Forty-seven days ago, when UNC suffered its most embarrassing home loss of the season to Pittsburgh, Davis and his team searched for an identity. Instead of being a group on the cusp of national acclaim, the Tar Heels were closer to spending the early days of spring at home than in Fort Worth, Philadelphia and New Orleans.
Then something clicked, and after four instant classics, the team was on the doorstep of its shining moment.
But in the end, the road was just a little too long.
"It was the national championship — I don't think anybody was thinking about being tired," Love said. "We were just trying to go out there and do whatever we had to do to get the win and it was just unfortunate that we came up short."
@dthsports | email@example.com
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