GREENVILLE, S.C. – The NCAA Tournament is officially underway, and the long march from a somber NRG Stadium locker room in Houston to an opportunity to remedy last April’s wrong has arrived for North Carolina.
Kris Jenkins’s arcing 25-foot shot was harsh enough in person, but it’s been seemingly set on repeat for the past 49 weeks. Kennedy Meeks finally forced himself to watch the title game loss when the buzzer-beater found him on YouTube last summer. It followed Joel Berry to Times Square last week in New York City during the ACC Tournament.
There’s been an obsessive focus by the Tar Heels in their demand for revenge, an unrelenting need to return to the national championship game and make amends for a lost trophy that momentarily grazed their fingertips. Such intensity has proven to be crippling for other teams in other sports as the destination takes on far greater importance than the journey.
The Tar Heels unified their motivation shortly after the team’s banquet last April, renaming the players’ iMessage group chat “Redemption.” Each year, the departing seniors say their goodbyes by removing their cell numbers from the group chat - J.P. Tokoto is the lone carryover, for reasons unknown – and the returning players typically start fresh, although that was not an option this season.
While “The Shot” will forever define the 2015-16 Tar Heels, the enduring storyline entering that final game was their fun-loving nature. Whether it was Theo Pinson crashing press conferences, Kennedy Meeks cracking jokes or Brice Johnson pranking his teammates with a fake snake in the locker room, UNC was as entertaining as it was talented.
Despite their desperate urge for revenge, the Tar Heels are still having a blast.
“The team is pretty loose,” Nate Britt said during UNC’s media availability on Thursday. “Over the last few years, our core set of guys have taken on that trait of being loose all of the time and not getting too tight, and getting lost in the moment. I think everyone will stay loose throughout this tournament as well.”
As if to prove his case, Britt turned the Tar Heel locker room at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena into a comedy act. When asked which teammate was most active on the group chat, the senior guard replied: “Probably Kennedy, but that’s because he’s lonely and he always wants to be with somebody. ‘Hey, when are you guys going to eat? Does anybody want to go eat with me?’”
Meeks dismissed the lonely claims, detailing his various avenues of dialogue, such as his girlfriend, siblings and fraternity brothers. However, he proudly owned the most talkative tag.
“I talk all of the time,” Meeks said. “It’s never going to stop. I don’t care where I’m at.”
None of his teammates argued otherwise.
“He’s always active on there,” Joel Berry said. “That’s why sometimes I put mine on ‘do not disturb,’ because you will be trying to focus on something and you will just see Kennedy, Kennedy, Kennedy.
“But that’s how close we are to one another. We’ve always had a great bond with one another. Sometimes he gets annoying, but it’s good.”
The chat log contains all that you would expect from a group of college kids: girls, class work and basketball, among other topics. It also serves as a virtual players-only meeting, a blessing of the technological age. Following last Friday’s loss to Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinal, Britt said the text messages were voices of unison.
“Let’s get this thing going. Let’s remember we’re on a mission to get where we didn’t get last year.”
And so while the Tar Heels may have a more purposeful, more personal mission this March, the jokes, the jabs and the pranks won’t stop.
“I lived it up to the fullest, personally,” Pinson said of the season to date. “I wanted all of my teammates to live it up to the fullest because we lived it up so much last year. You’re upset that you lost, but at the same time, we enjoyed every single moment. That’s what I want this team to do, also.
“We’re going to enjoy the ride hopefully until we’re holding that trophy up.”