Eager for Next Step

LOS ANGELES – Less than 20 minutes after the season’s final horn had sounded, the Tar Heels couldn’t help but let their thoughts drift toward the promise of a new season some six months away.

The final postgame locker room scene of a season is uncomfortable for most reporters. A loss in December, while oftentimes somber, carries the reminder that more games will follow. When the loss comes in the postseason, the only reminder is that of finality. Never again will that particular team share a locker room before, during or after a game.

As reporters work their way into the inevitably tight quarters once the NCAA’s 10-minute cooling down period elapses, there’s a feeling of intrusiveness that’s unique to that specific March moment.

Following UNC’s loss to Kansas in the 2008 Final Four, Tyler Hansbrough’s eyes were so swollen from tears that it was difficult to know if he was in fact looking in your direction. In Newark in 2011, Kendall Marshall sat in front of his locker with a towel over his head trying to come to terms with an incredible late-season run.

Last March, in San Antonio, a normally calm and collected Marcus Paige was fidgety, constantly adjusting a jersey that didn’t need to be adjusted while fighting back tears and the emotions that come with blaming one’s self for a loss.

Every year is seemingly the same, which is why UNC’s locker room on Thursday night in the Staples Center, mere minutes after Wisconsin had pulled away and clinched its Elite Eight trip with a 79-72 win, served as an outlier.

The loss to the Badgers was a talking point, as well as the harsh realization that the 2014-15 season had come to a close, but there was also a willingness, a preference almost, to focus on the positives of the postseason run and the corrections that need to occur for a deeper run next year.

Thursday’s loss highlighted a trend that has plagued the Tar Heels all season long: an inability to consistently make the necessary plays against elite-level competition to close out victories. Paige described the tendency as a team missing that extra edge.

“We were so close to being an elite team this year,” Paige said. “It’s kind of disappointing because we never really grew to where we made that leap, where we made that step, and that hurts to say as a guy that’s a big part of what we do.

“Hopefully that will drive us next year to be willing to take that step, be willing to go that extra mile to be able to be one of those elite teams, to be a No. 1 seed, to have things go in our favor and be able to win 34 games like Wisconsin did. We’re good enough, but we have to buy in.”

The junior point guard, who talked poignantly about the realization that he only has one more season to wear the UNC uniform, said that buy-in begins on the individual level. The Tar Heels are expected to return their top 10 scorers next year.

Paige expressed frustration in the fact that UNC competed at a different level in the postseason than it did during the regular season, because the latter resulted in a No. 4 seed.

“In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have to meet a team like Wisconsin until the Final Four or until the championship,” Paige said, “but because of those lapses, because of our lack of being able to limit those mistakes that we’ve been making throughout the year and didn’t have a chance to correct, you’ve got to play them in the Sweet 16 and that’s tough.”

In addition to the lapses in poise, execution and toughness, injuries limited the Tar Heels’ ability to gel at a faster rate during the regular season. Paige didn’t return to full health after battling plantar fasciitis until early March, while Joel Berry, Theo Pinson and Kennedy Meeks all missed time due to various health-related ailments.

Paige factored heavily into UNC’s postseason run to the ACC Tournament championship game and the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, although the emergence of Berry and fellow freshman Justin Jackson were also critical developments.

Both rookies turned in solid performances against Wisconsin. Berry scored nine points on 2-of-3 shooting, dished out three assists without a turnover and even drew a charge. Jackson led UNC with 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting and also posted a 3:0 assist-error ratio.

Neither were willing to overlook the harshness of their first NCAA Tournament loss, although how their team closed the season provided plenty of optimism moving forward.

“Looking back at how tough the season has been and all of the outside things going on, and how we were up and down during the regular season and brought it together towards the end, I think it was definitely a bright point,” Jackson said.

Berry admitted to having butterflies prior to entering his first Sweet 16 game. Afterwards, he was ready for more.

“I’m just excited to be able to come back with all of these guys and be able to compete and work towards something that we all want, which is a national championship,” Berry said.

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