2022 Tar Heels poised to be Carolina's unlikeliest heroes
This North Carolina team — this North Carolina team — is 1 win away from becoming the most beloved in this program’s storied history.
This North Carolina team.
These Tar Heels who lost to Kentucky by 29. To Miami by 28, in a basketball game. These Tar Heels who gave up 98 points to Wake Forest — which was 3 more than the Deacs managed against Charleston Southern.
A Carolina team that lost to lousy, lowly Pitt. The same seemingly sorry Heels who Duke rolled by 20 at the Dean Dome nearly 2 months ago to the day.
North Carolina teams don’t do that. Not all in the same season.
But none of them have accomplished what this team just did, either. And that’s what’s poised to put the 2022 Tar Heels atop Chapel Hill’s lofty Olympus.
Sure, Carolina has reached 11 other national championship games and won 6 of them. But none of them could taste as sweet as this nectar.
With all of the college basketball world watching, this North Carolina team spoiled Mike Krzyzewski’s home finale at despised Cameron Indoor Stadium. The images of sad Duke fans after the game were enough to make Carolina fans cackle for eternity.
— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) March 6, 2022
But as it turned out, eternity wasn’t very long at all. Not for this Carolina team.
Meekly working its way into the NCAA Tournament field as an 8-seed, UNC seemed a long shot just to make the second weekend with defending national champion Baylor in the way.
It was almost one of the most humiliating defeats in Carolina history. The Bears whittled a 25-point deficit away in only 10 minutes, sending the game to overtime.
Somehow, even after Brady Manek’s objectionable ejection, the Heels found a way to win in overtime. And eventually they circled around to the inevitable.
North Carolina and Duke, playing for the first time ever in the NCAA Tournament. An opportunity to end Coach K’s career, or end up another notch on his way to tying Carolina with a 6th national title.
Somehow, this North Carolina team became the one that put Mike Krzyzewski out to pasture.
Seemingly every team plays the “nobody believed in us” card, but North Carolina actually lived it.
At the final media timeout, the game was tied at 67 with 3:32 remaining. A complete toss-up by any measure. Yet sports books were still posting a live line with Duke favored by as many as 3.5 points.
The Blue Devils had free throws pending at that moment, so it was understandable that they were considered the favorites. But given what had transpired all game, it was surprising the books expected the public to go all-in on the Heels folding.
And perhaps the public did. But this Carolina team did not fold.
The Tar Heels made all 3 field goals they took down the stretch.
Caleb Love with a layup to put Carolina ahead with 3:03 left. Brady Manek responding to a Trevor Keels 3 with a trey of his own, putting Carolina up once again. Then Love with the shot of the game, a deep splash that extended the margin to 4 with 25 seconds remaining.
It capped off a generally brilliant second half. The Heels were 50% from the field and 54% from 3-point range. They outrebounded Duke by a 25-19 total. They survived spurts without rebounding king Armando Bacot, first due to an injury scare and then after he fouled out.
And now North Carolina has vanquished its arch-nemesis for the final time.
On to Finland, er, Kansas
There aren’t many moments in sports history where the semifinal is the thing we remember and the championship game the thing we forget.
And when it is, it often doesn’t work out for the team we remember.
Aaron Boone’s walk-off homer to beat the Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS? Pretty dramatic. But the Yankees still lost to the Marlins in the World Series.
Carlton Fisk’s iconic Game 6 homer in the 1975 World Series? Didn’t matter. We’ve all seen the highlight, but Johnny Bench can show you his World Series ring instead. The Reds won Game 7, not the Red Sox.
But there is one example Hubert Davis could probably show his team before it faces Kansas on Monday night.
In 1980, the US Olympic hockey team beat the Soviet Union in the Miracle on Ice. It was, and probably still is, the most improbable upset in sports history.
But it probably wouldn’t be remembered as fondly if the Americans slipped on their stakes and lost to Finland 2 days later. And in order to win the gold medal, that’s what the US had to do.
This is essentially the scenario North Carolina finds itself in with a game left to play. Kansas is this team’s Finland.
Lose, and the Tar Heels will still have the satisfaction of ending Coach K’s career. But there will be a degree of emptiness if that’s all they do.
Beat the Jayhawks, and this Carolina team will raise a 7th banner — but none will look bigger.