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'Every moment was special:' UNC men's basketball reflects on season after stunning loss to Alabama in Sweet 16

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The UNC men's basketball team walks onto the court in Crypto.com Arena on Thursday, March 28 during UNC’s appearance in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 against Alabama. UNC lost 89-87.

 LOS ANGELES — RJ Davis’ voice trailed off.

“I missed a lot of shots I normally make,” he said, reflecting on his 4-of-20 performance. He paused. An “um” followed and the senior guard rubbed his face. Soon, his head dropped. He went silent.

Then Cormac Ryan chimed in.

You guys can write whatever you want about tonight's game,” he said. “You could talk about RJ, you could talk about the stats. You could talk about whatever.”

“We would not be in this position today without RJ Davis and Armando Bacot.”

There’s a lot to pick apart in No. 1 seed UNC’s 89-87 loss to No. 4 seed Alabama in the Sweet 16: poor shot selection, fatigue and an uncharacteristic performance from UNC's star. With all respect to Ryan, that's fair game. But what will prevail past this season? Past the initial sting?

The brotherhood. The camaraderie. The experience.

Davis and Bacot — two college players of a dying breed — elected to give things another go after missing the 2023 NCAA tournament. Seth Trimble and Jalen Washington did the same, without the same guarantee of playing time. The offseason saw a complete retooling with additions of Ryan, Harrison Ingram, Paxson Wojcik and Jae’Lyn Withers.

Yes, there were ugly moments. Uncharacteristic losses to Georgia Tech, Clemson and Syracuse. There were, to quote head coach Hubert Davis, rainy days and sunny days. Thursday was a thunderstorm that brought with it the crushing finality only March Madness can bring. 

But after the loss, Bacot pointed to the sunshine. He characterized his last season in one word: fun.

We had a lot of fun this year and we all love each other,” Bacot said. “I think the bonds that I’ve created with these guys are greater than I’ve created with any team I've been on. We’ve just had so much fun.”

The rain

Withers was still reflecting. He rubbed his chin, his beard and then his lips, fidgeting in seemingly every possible way as he spoke about his last shot attempt of the game — a 3-pointer with a minute to play and 15 seconds left on the shot clock. 

On that play, Davis was double-teamed and passed the ball out to Withers. The graduate forward, who was 4-for-19 on the season from distance, launched the ball.

It bounced off the rim.

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Alabama senior forward Grant Nelson (2) goes for a layup in Crypto.com Arena on Thursday, March 28 during UNC’s appearance in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 against Alabama. UNC lost 89-87.

A minute of Grant Nelson-packed game action later and the buzzer sounded. Wojcik dropped to his knees and Ryan placed his hands on his head. The Tar Heels were ushered out. Meanwhile, stunned faces filled the crowd of players’ parents positioned behind the bench. Frozen.

And then this. A desolate locker room. Tears streamed from Trimble’s eyes. A package of tissues sat at his feet. Teammates hugged teammates for possibly the last time. 

And amidst the sniffles, Withers sat in front of his locker, apologizing for his efforts.

“I think that the shot I took was a crucial shot,” he said. “I work on it day-in and day-out but I think that was the time to score and I could’ve gotten to the free throw line or gotten to the basket.” 

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The clang of Withers’ late miss was one chord in a cacophony of in-and-outs, bricks and airballs that defined North Carolina's play late. The Tar Heels missed 15 of their first 17 shots in the second half and then devolved into a slew of questionable shots.

Fatigue may have played a factor. The Crimson Tide played at a lightning-quick pace, which should have come as no surprise considering Alabama ranks No. 10 in the nation in adjusted tempo per KenPom.

Again, should have.

“I guess this was the first time we played a team that has matched our pace,” Trimble said. “Sometimes they even got out faster than us. It caught us by surprise, sometimes. They took advantage of our defensive mistakes. They were just the better team tonight.”

UNC shot 25 percent in the second half — the worst performance for the Tar Heels in an NCAA tournament half since 2012. The ACC Player of the Year went 0-for-9 from distance — the first time Davis has failed to make a single 3-pointer in a game since facing off against Ryan and Notre Dame in February 2023. 

Ball screen coverage, hard hedges, traps. Doubles and pressure. Davis fought through it all — the entire defensive onslaught devised by Alabama head coach Nate Oats — to little avail.

Usually I'm confident,” Davis said, “And one thing my teammates did throughout the whole game was pick me up and told me to continue to keep shooting.”

The senior guard had chances to win it late, as he’d done so many times in the season. But instead, Nelson spiked his layup with just under 30 seconds to play. Dead ball. Reset. Another drive and another awkward finish over Nelson. No good.

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Senior guard RJ Davis (4) has his layup blocked by Alabama senior forward Grant Nelson (2) in Crypto.com Arena on Thursday, March 28 during UNC’s appearance in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 against Alabama. UNC lost 89-87.

“We just tried to get the best shot possible,” Davis said. “Tried to get an easy two going. I thought I had an advantage on Nelson, I was able to blow by, but then he was able to swat it.”

When it mattered most, the senior couldn’t execute. But he should’ve been able to, right?

Wrong. 

The sun

UNC’s 2023 season ended far before the final game. After a February loss to N.C. State, Wolfpack fans chanted “NIT! NIT!” as the final seconds ticked away and all odds of a postseason bid to the Big Dance seemingly evaporated.

When asked to reflect on Thursday, Davis said “I don’t even want to talk about last year.”

And why would he?

“Everybody was ready for last year to be done,” Trimble said. “Nobody wanted this year to end. So that says a lot."

It says a lot and the Tar Heels had lots to say about it. About card games in the locker room. Ryan climbing on top of the team bus post-Duke win. The Bumpboxx used to blast music. The road trips. Playing EA Sports UFC together in the mornings. And on and on.

Funny moments, the togetherness, going out to eat and stuff like that, I mean, this team chemistry was real,” Davis said. “Everyone is so emotional, because everyone had full belief that we could go far.”

But the road ends here in Los Angeles, Hollywood scripts of a Caleb Love face-off and dreams of avenging the 2022 title game be damned. 

The shock will take a while to fade, no doubt. But then past that? A regular season championship, ACC title game appearance, No. 1 seed and conference coach and player of the year accolades serve as evidence that North Carolina is, to quote RJ Davis, “back to where it usually is.”

“This team has really brought back everybody’s faith as a whole,” Trimble said, fighting back tears. “You know, [we’ve] brought back the Carolina standard. That’s the biggest thing.”

Davis’ jersey will hang in the Dean E. Smith Center rafters. Bacot’s name will be scrawled across the record books. And Ryan, after playing his final season as a Tar Heel, is already embedded in program lore thanks to his performance at Cameron Indoor Stadium, among other moments.

But for now, the pain permeates. You saw it with every player who packed up their belongings — and season —  and exited the UNC locker room in Crypto.com Arena on Thursday. Sweat suits on. Headphones on. 

In the middle of the exodus walked RJ Davis and Bacot. They didn’t speak to each other, at least at first. There was no need to. They’d been in this position before, and much worse, together.

Instead, the duo — outfitted in matching crocs and hoodies — lumbered in silence.

At least, at first.

As they curved around the makeshift media workrooms in the outer crevices of the arena, the two began to exchange a few words out of earshot from anyone else. Just the two of them. One last memory for the road.

This is what they’ll continue to share. More than the regular season banner and sense of program redemption, more than four years shared across coaching changes and a complete overhaul of the college game, more than the immediate and inconceivable finality of this loss, they’ll share this moment — this bond.

“It’s hard just because we’ve shared so many memories on and off the court,” Davis said. “I don’t really have a favorite memory of me and him but I’ve definitely enjoyed just being around [Bacot] and learning from him. Not just about basketball but about life. He’s been a great friend, brother and roommate. He was my roommate throughout the whole year on the road.”

“Just every moment was special.”

@shelbymswanson

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com 


Shelby Swanson

Shelby Swanson is the 2023-24 sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as an assistant sports editor and senior writer. Shelby is a junior pursuing a double major in media and journalism and Hispanic literatures and cultures.