Up until the final seconds of Monday night’s NCAA championship game, the energy in the Dean E. Smith Center was hopeful.
The stadium was packed with fans — students, families and community members — who gathered to cheer on the Tar Heels against the No. 1 seed Kansas for the national title.
Despite North Carolina's 72-69 loss, being able to watch the historic game surrounded by a sea of Carolina blue created a strong sense of togetherness, junior Halle Robinson said.
“Even though there is nobody on the court, everybody is so excited and there’s such a community," she said.
Hours before the doors opened, fans lined up outside of the Smith Center, some chanting “TAR!” and others echoing the chant with a resounding “HEELS!”
'Bring it home'
Once fans were inside the Smith Center, joyful voices continued to ring through the crowd, filled with anticipation for the game ahead.
When UNC led by 15 points at halftime, the stands began to shake as fans danced to music and celebrated their team.
One tiny Tar Heel, in particular, leapt into the aisle of the Smith Center and began to dance.
Nine-year-old Corbin Perkins, a lifelong North Carolina basketball fan, walked into the Smith Center on Monday night with one goal: to rush Franklin Street.
“I’m feeling great,” Perkins said. “Hopefully we win, otherwise we’ll just be sad, and I want to party.”
Like many fans, Perkins said he was feeling confident, and was looking forward to clinching the national title.
Unlike Saturday night’s match-up against Duke in the Final Four, the nerves seemed to have subsided in the crowd.
Jaleesa Ames, a supervisor for the UNC men’s basketball team, said she was confident as ever before tip-off.
“What letter comes after 'K'?” Ames said. “'L,' that’s what Duke got. So, you know I’m feeling real real good tonight! We are going to win tonight! I ain’t worried about Kansas, I ain’t worried about none of that. We are going to rush the floor, we are going to be good and we’re going to bring it home!”
To prepare for Monday’s game, Ames said she listened to her favorite pregame playlist featuring “All I Do Is Win” by DJ Khaled and was excited to celebrate a national championship in the Smith Center, even though the team wouldn’t be playing on its home court.
“Like they said, whether you’re at home, whether you’re with us, whether you’re in the stadium, you know — have a good time, act like you’re with us,” Ames said. “We are still going to do our fingers as we would do, we’re going to stand up and clap when they score.”
'Still our hearts beat true'
Junior Isabella Lore transferred to UNC this year and said the sense of community she found throughout the tournament, and in the stadium Monday night, made her emotional. No matter the final score.
“The reactions of the people in the stadium made being here completely worth it,” she said. “I’m just so happy to be here.”
Rose DeLaTorre, a UNC fan whose husband is the chairperson of the University's Music Department, returned to the Smith Center Monday night.
DeLaTorre said that she had sat in the band section during the Final Four game against Duke and, for luck, wanted to return Monday.
Her one piece of advice for the team prior to Monday night's tip-off was simple.
“Don’t have any turnovers,” she said. Just go hard! Go Heels!”
Despite the loss, the Tar Heels did go hard. As the buzzer sounded to conclude the first half, fans danced and cheered with a sense of ease and excitement before returning to their seats for the second half.
However, shortly into the second half, the tides began to change and nerves began to rise. After a hard-fought game, UNC lost the national title to Kansas by three points.
Even as the outcome looked bleak, nearly every fan in the Smith Center stayed until the very end. Students wrapped their arms around each other and swayed back and forth to UNC's alma mater, "Hark the Sound."
The song ends with: “Though the storms of life assail us, Still our hearts beat true, Naught can break the friendships formed at, Dear old N.C.U."
The crowd filed out of the Smith Center to "Carolina in My Mind" by James Taylor.
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