Fighting to the End

NEWARK, N.J. – As the Tar Heels walked back onto the court with 9.3 seconds remaining in their final game of the season, Tyler Zeller put his arm around a dejected Kendall Marshall and immediately motioned for his teammates to huddle up. The message was clear – the game wasn't over.

"He told me that we were not going to give up," Marshall said. "I think at that point we were down six. He said that we were not going to give up, that we were going to fight to the end."

If there is a lasting impression of the 2010-11 season, it's that North Carolina never conceded defeat.

Mark out the win-loss column and this squad has mirrored a team in turmoil over the past 12 months. David and Travis Wear met with assistant coach Steve Robinson to discuss their offseason practice plans on a random Tuesday last April and two days later hopped on a plane headed to California with no intentions of returning.

Fifth-year senior and team elder Will Graves assumed leadership duties last summer, but served as a poor example in violating team rules and getting kicked out of the program in October. Add in Larry Drew's turbulent exit midseason, and the Tar Heels had every reason to play out of rhythm and look out of sync.

But that attrition served as the bonding agent needed to form a cohesive unit.

"We came a long way," sophomore guard Dexter Strickland said. "With Larry and the Wear Twins and Will even, it hurt, but I think it was a good thing for us because it brought us together. I think everybody is proud, but at the same time, we lost. We felt like we could have taken it all the way. I speak for everybody when I say that we did come a long way."

That bond only strengthened when dire situations arose on the basketball court. The Tar Heels rallied from double digits deficits five times in ACC play to claim improbable victories. They accomplished that feat once more against Washington in the third round of the NCAA Tournament, but the well ran dry on Sunday.

Trailing by 11 only minutes into the second half against Kentucky, North Carolina stormed back and tied the score at 67 with 3:18 to play, but there was no magic left. And with a brutal swiftness, the season was over.

"I don't even know what I'm doing with my week," Zeller said moments following the loss. "When you don't have practice, it's one of those things where you're just lost. You just feel empty….

"Right now, I think it's going to hurt for hopefully a week, maybe a couple of weeks, but after that you've got to look back on what we did and take what you did well and learn from the things you didn't do well."

The Tar Heel locker room was saturated with a sense of finality. Reporters asked questions in soft tones out of respect as Marshall and fellow freshman Harrison Barnes were having a difficult time stopping the tears from flowing. The first time experiencing this type of sorrow is all-consuming.

As expected, Strickland and Zeller joined sophomore John Henson in delivering more measured responses a year removed from the NIT semifinals.

"It hurts a lot," Marshall said. "It hurts a lot, especially for Justin Knox, our lone senior. You want to keep him playing basketball, you want to keep his dreams alive of winning a national championship as well as for our team. I think what hurts the most is that it's over. There is no tomorrow. There's no more practice, there's no more scouting reports. That's it. There's nothing else."

Except there always is something else. While this group of Tar Heels fell short of their ultimate goal, they managed to restore faith in the North Carolina program and made it clear that the troubled 2009-10 campaign was a mere bump in the road.

"We've really come together," Marshall said. "We've made strides and we've achieved some of our goals. One of them was to make the Final Four. We didn't reach it, but I would definitely say we've had a successful season… I'm very proud of the things we've accomplished and what we've done as a team, but it hurts right now."

Losing is supposed to hurt. If it doesn't, then you were never emotionally invested enough. The silver lining, of course, is that North Carolina was thought to be building toward a national championship run next year, and if anything, Sunday cemented that belief.

But who can blame North Carolina for trying to achieve that goal one year ahead of schedule? After all, the Tar Heels had no intentions of going away quietly. That's not their style.

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