CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – When the Tar Heels returned to the Smith Center for their first day of weightlifting in May, they were greeted by a large sign that had been hung in their locker room. There was an identical one in the weight room.
For the past five months, those signs have served as a harsh reminder for the failures of a season ago.
The left column on the sign details eight games in which North Carolina held a second-half lead. Up 43-25 with 17:51 to play at Louisville. Up 77-67 with 3:51 to play at Duke. Up 63-54 with 9:58 to play against Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament final. Up 53-46 with 11:11 to play against Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.
The right column included the final score of all eight games. All losses.
“All of a sudden one day you look in the locker room and they’re just up there,” senior forward Brice Johnson said on Monday. “And you’re like, ‘Wow, we really did lose those games just like that.’”
At the bottom of the sign is a question that will quite possibly define UNC’s 2015-16 season.
“Can we finish?”
On that random day in May, not long before the start of the first session of summer school, head coach Roy Williams made sure his players understood the importance of the sign and of the lost opportunities it represented.
Senior guard Marcus Paige mused at UNC’s Media Day that by simply holding on to win half of those eight games, the Tar Heels would have finished with a 30-8 record.
“Finishing a couple of those games was the difference between being in a Final Four or having a 1- or 2-seed and being stuck where we were,” Paige said.
UNC’s season ended as a NCAA Tournament No. 4 seed on the other side of the country in Los Angeles, dropping a 79-72 decision to the top-seeded Badgers.
“What separates a great team - Wisconsin would be considered a great team last year - and what separated them from us is a couple of possessions,” Paige said. “We had a seven-point lead in the second half. We had that situation in a lot of games last year, where we had second-half leads and just couldn’t hang on.”
The signs, along their head coach’s constant reminders, fueled the Tar Heels’ offseason workouts and pickup games, and serve as motivation now that the preseason is underway.
“I think that’s what we need, because we need to finish this year,” sophomore guard Joel Berry said. “That’s one thing that we’ve been focusing on, just being able to play tougher this year.”
There is difficulty in dissecting an intangible such as finishing, and then covering the basic principles in a 10-minute practice period. Experience and talent – a pair of valued characteristics in which UNC is currently in possession – help in the ability to close out games, as well those little things that players and coaches talk so often about, such as boxing out, avoiding defensive letdowns, and playing with poise.
“We took some ill-advised shots [and] missed a couple of free throws that were big in a couple of games for us,” Williams said, “so it is something that you can talk about and emphasize, but it’s hard to work on it, other than the attention to detail.”
There’s value in UNC’s postseason run in 2014-15. Despite the failure to close out wins over Notre Dame and Wisconsin, the Tar Heels played their best basketball over the final three weeks of the season. Junior guard Nate Britt highlighted his team’s refusal to wilt under pressure against top-seeded Virginia in the ACC Tournament as an example of its growth.
“I think a lot of it is just staying together,” sophomore wing Justin Jackson said. “There were a lot of times that we would get down, and we’d get down on each other and try to start doing our own thing. Towards the end of the year, I think we really started to stick together and we pulled out a few games that probably earlier in the season we couldn’t.”
The Tar Heels, who return four starters and nine of their top-10 scorers from a season ago, hope to continue building on that March run.
“We’ve got a chance to have a very good basketball team, but we’ve still got to do it on the court,” Williams said.
In order to finish the season at the Final Four in Houston, the Tar Heels must first finish games, unlike the eight from a year ago that certain signs won’t let them forget.