*That grief is not going to fade away among fans completely for a long, long time, because this one is going to be remembered for years. But players and coaches don't have that luxury--and at the end of the day, despite the disappointment, one suspects Roy Williams will hit the hay Saturday night feeling better about his basketball team than when the day began. Coming off a thoroughly sluggish effort against Akron, the Tar Heels turned in a great performance against another very strong opposition, a performance that featured plenty of good team basketball and clutch plays, at different times, from literally every one of the top 7 players. While plenty of mistakes were made on both sides, especially as fatigue wore on, this game boasted no goats or villains, only heroes in both uniforms.
*What transformed this contest from merely a great Tobacco Road game to an all-time classic was the scintillating play on both ends in the first overtime, as each club racked up 16 points and seemed incapable of missing. But late free throw woes from the tiring Tar Heels gave the Deacons a reprieve, and Wake ran a clever out of bounds play that led to Melvin Scott fouling jump shooter Chris Paul. In the second overtime, Wake Forest's commitment to take to the ball to the basket finally led to foul number five for Sean May, who was a split second late defending Jamaal Levy's drive. The Tar Heels were fortunate that the Deacons did not immediately capitalize in the form of Eric Williams, as both teams hit a cold spell in which both shot selection and shooting touch went by the wayside. Rashad McCants, who had helped keep Carolina in the game with this 3-point shooting in the first overtime, surprisingly missed two free throws as a sub for the injured Felton with the score 106-104 in the final minute, and Wake again took advantage through Williams inside to force five more minutes.
*Wake is too well-coached a team to not eventually exploit the opening in the middle May's absence created, and after Taron Downey's clutch 3 to cut UNC's lead to 111-110 in the third overtime, Williams simply took over, while the worn-out Heels ran out of backdoor cuts, tap-ins, and clutch 3 point shooting. The execution on the last offensive set for Carolina was disappointing, with first McCants and then Felton left in the position of trying to free themselves for a 3 point shot via a one-on-one move, but credit Wake's tenacious defense as well.
*All in all, simply a great game, the kind of game where it seems ungracious to harp excessively over physical and mental mistakes (even though there were plenty of each). Over the course of the fifty-five minutes, if one had to point to a single difference-maker, probably the best place to look is Wake Forest freshman center Kyle Visser. Visser's presence as that effective extra big body gave Wake Forest the one thing the Tar Heels currently lack, and his six field goals, five of them layups, were absolutely vital. At the moment, Carolina doesn't have a reserve anywhere near capable of making the kind of frontcourt contribution Visser made on Saturday.
*On the other hand, although Noel did play and did play hard, it would be misleading to describe Carolina as at "full strength" for this one. Noel was out of sync for the most part in regulation, not surprisingly, although he did contribute an athletic tap-in in the first half. With May and Felton's departures in the second overtime, Noel was drafted back into service and responded with a great blocked shot and a clutch 3, but his overall contribution Saturday was far smaller than it will be once he gets fully back in the swing of things. Hopefully that will not take too long.
*In any case, there is little reason for Carolina's players or supporters to lose heart after this one. True, one can pessimistically observe that the Tar Heels lost a home game despite playing probably their best game of the year so far, and did so even though they avoided early foul trouble to May and Felton (season-long worries), and even though they had a fistful of chances to put this one into the W column. And, have no doubt, this L is a big blow to any aspirations Carolina might have for winning the ACC regular season race.
But focusing too much on those facts would conceal a larger truth: Carolina is back playing basketball at a very high level, and is going to be a treat to watch the next four months as the Tar Heels continue to improve. There is no shame in losing a game worthy of an ACC Tournament or NCAA Regional Final, and no reason to think Carolina will not have a fighting chance to reverse this result in Winston-Salem come February, or perhaps later on in tournament play. It would be presumptuous to even begin to put this team in the same breath as the 1992-93 title team, but if this Wake loss can be compared to anything, it most feels like the heartbreaking December loss that Tar Heel team suffered to Michigan in Hawaii on a Jalen Rose tap at the buzzer.
That loss, too, was extremely disappointing at the time, but members of that '93 team later said that the game actually increased their confidence as well as their resolve. Hopefully, once the disappointment begins to fade and the sore legs begin to get their bounce back, this year's edition of the Tar Heels will come to feel the same way about Saturday's epic loss.
Thad Williamson is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many, available at www.dollarsandsense.org/bookstore.html. You can email Thad at firstname.lastname@example.org.