CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In the afterglow of Saturday’s victory over Duke, Joel Berry spoke of getting revenge for the loss at Cameron Indoor in February. He also described the regular season finale as an opportunity for North Carolina to get better as a team, which was a telling comment considering the Tar Heels had cut down the Smith Center nets just moments before.
This team’s motivation was never to win the ACC regular season crown or even this week’s ACC Tournament in Brooklyn. Those were preseason goals, of course, and lofty ones at that. A season ago, the ACC regular season and tournament titles were defining moments for a senior class that had previously been shut out of championship hardware. The march to the NCAA championship game was free basketball.
Kris Jenkins’s 25-footer set in motion a simmering resolve that had already cemented by the time the Tar Heels returned home from Houston last April. In the moments following Villanova’s last-second title game victory, Roy Williams challenged his team to embrace, not dismiss, its pain and disappointment.
“I told them in the locker room, ‘Let’s use this as fuel to work harder in the offseason,’” Williams said in October. “‘Let’s use this as fuel to motivate, use this as fuel to put in that extra time to know that we were that close but we didn’t get what we wanted.’”
The Tar Heels have done just that. While last season’s victory at Duke in the regular season finale was a breakthrough, a game that demonstrated UNC was capable of winning something and one that eventually proved UNC was capable of winning everything, Saturday’s win was more about laying the groundwork for the postseason to come.
“There’s unfinished business with us losing the championship last year and the way that we lost it,” senior guard Nate Britt said. “… This year is just all about getting back.”
There were parallels drawn in the postgame interviews to Clemson football and how the Tigers marinated on their 2016 national championship game loss to Alabama. Dabo Swinney’s program made amends in January, harnessing 12 months of heartbreak and “what-ifs” for a national title.
These Tar Heels understand what it takes. While that alone does not guarantee success, it served as a starting point for picking up the pieces last spring and it continues to reinforce the need to elevate their play with each game moving forward.
“We started our run last year after beating Duke,” sophomore forward Luke Maye said. “We really just need to keep it going. We know how to get it done in this type of scenario. We’ve just got to keep playing well and playing to our strengths and I feel like we’ll be fine.”
There are plenty of positives to pull from Saturday’s victory. After failing to make enough plays in the closing minutes at Cameron Indoor, ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson and second-team All-ACCer Joel Berry provided critical baskets late. The win capped UNC’s regular season title with a two-game margin, marking only the second time in eight years the ACC has been decided by more than one game. It also confirmed the leadership by committee approach employed this season works well enough.
“I think it was a special moment for us because we didn’t have Brice [Johnson] and Marcus [Paige],” senior forward Kennedy Meeks said. “And for us to come together as a team without two of the best leaders that I’ve ever been around says a lot about this team and says a lot for Coach believing in us.”
Ultimately, though, the 2016-17 Tar Heels were never going to be defined by their ACC hardware. Greater things potentially lie ahead.