Charlotte, N.C. — A long, almost single-file line of reporters stood waiting on one side of a roped-off hallway outside of North Carolina‘s locker room. The only sound was a fan in the Spectrum Centre loudly whirring overhead, some idle chatter, and the muffled blare of a school band from the playing floor as the next game was about to get underway. Though the music made it seem like it was a line for an exclusive nightclub rather than to get into a somber postgame locker room.
As seniors Theo Pinson and Joel Berry exited the North Carolina locker room for the last time – something both knew would happen in the coming weeks, but neither thought would happen here or on this night – the locker room opened to the media.
They filed in slowly, having to dodge the UMBC players that were running back in from warming up on the court and back to their locker room that was right across the hall from North Carolina‘s. They wore shirts that said “Shock the World.”
That‘s how the Tar Heels felt still, even as the outcome of the game had been long decided. It wasn‘t as if they‘d been stunned by a buzzer-beater – their NCAA Tournament run ended before it really began with a
But until the final seconds ticked off the clock, it didn‘t feel real to North Carolina junior Kenny Williams.
“Honestly, with this team, you‘re always going to believe. That‘s the crazy thing about playing here. Coach (Roy Williams) just makes you believe,” Williams said. “So even when it got down to four minutes, I thought something was going to happen. Something was going to go our way.
“It didn‘t really set in until he made all the subs and we went out of the game. That‘s just who we‘ve been for my three years here now is we believe every second that we‘re going to win the game. We‘re going to find a way to make a play and win.”
And maybe it‘s because once the game swung abruptly in the direction of the Aggies, it never really swung back.
The Tar Heels led 20-13 with 11:37 to go in the first half, and at the very least, it seemed like the game would be a competitive, back-and-forth affair.
Then North Carolina went on a scoring drought for over six minutes, and would be outscored 29-8 to end the half. It just snowballed from there.
Like Virginia on the Friday before, everyone was just waiting for the Tar Heels to make the inevitable run that never came – even the Tar Heels themselves. Even when they were down 20 or more most of the second half.
“I didn‘t think we were out of it. I didn‘t think we were out of it probably until the buzzer rang at the end,” UNC junior Cam Johnson said. “There was a moment probably with three minutes left where I said, ‘Man, this clock is moving and we‘re not catching up.‘”
The Los Angeles regional finals will be on a Thursday-Saturday schedule. North Carolina‘s players assumed after this game, they‘d go home for a bit and get right back on a plane to go there. But just like that – it‘s over.
“We fully expected to go home, rest, get on a plane and get back out,” Johnson said. “I really thought these were games that we could win and start a run. And just like that, the season comes to an end, just in a matter of 40 minutes on the court.
“That‘s probably the hardest thing is that you don‘t get another chance at this one and I don‘t get another chance to play with Joel (Berry) and Theo (Pinson), to play another game with this group, this season. That‘s just how it ends.”
Pinson and Berry haven‘t exited the NCAA Tournament this early in their entire Carolina careers. The seniors have two Final Fours and a national title between them. As emotional as they‘ve been during the more poignant moments with their careers winding down, though, both just seemed to be in disbelief as the game got later and later and the deficit didn‘t shrink.
Pinson continued to coach up his teammates and offer encouragement. As Johnson sat on the bench, during a dead ball with a little less than 16 minutes left and the Tar Heels down 20, Pinson came over and high-fived Johnson, grinning widely at him, as if to say that everything was going to be fine, somehow they‘d still win.
And he kept coaching up his teammates, at one point even later in the game pulling aside young big men Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley to give them pointers on how to deal with the Aggies‘ powerful big men. The Aggies‘ post duo was as advertised and made North Carolina‘s life difficult on both ends.
But the biggest issue was North Carolina couldn‘t get three-pointers to fall. As a small-ball team this year, they‘ve relied on better shooting. They got good looks against Texas A&M‘s aggressive, active zone – but they didn‘t go in. The Tar Heels would finish 6-of-31 from three, and that was WITH making four of their last seven.
“We had a couple times where we were just like ‘Dang. Can we get one to fall?‘ Then in the second half, we came out, we got a couple of stops and it was just in and out and we were like ‘Doggone, are we ever going to get one to fall?‘” Pinson said.
When the shots wouldn‘t go, Pinson said, it affected everything else.
“I think it‘s just human nature. You can sit here and say to be positive about it, but when that ball‘s not going in, everything else doesn‘t work as well as it usually does. We just didn‘t shoot the ball well tonight, and that‘s what happens,” Pinson said.
It wasn‘t just missed shots, though. Offensive rebounds that usually belong to the Tar Heels were being snared by the powerful and strong big men of A&M who got great position. They weren‘t attacking the basket the way they needed to against the zone, but A&M‘s shot-blockers were intimidating.
But when North Carolina got a play designed with 0.4 seconds to go in the first half to get Manley a point-blank look at the basket and it bounced harmlessly off the rim, it felt like it just wasn‘t the Tar Heels‘ night.
Plays that they were used to seeing go their way didn‘t, and all it takes is one game like that and it‘s over.
“We go out there every day since two weeks from now and we go out there and we fight and we fight and we fight and we practice and we go through adversity, we go through injuries, we go through people saying things, we go through positives, we go through negatives,” Johnson said.
“The thing about this is your season is judged on how you do in the tournament. For it to come down to one game where we came out there, started off all right but then things went south. Shots didn‘t fall. Rebounds didn‘t come our way. The ball just didn‘t bounce our way. And to be out-efforted like that, to have a team kind of take it to us and punch us in the mouth, for that to be the end-all, that just makes it so tough.”
The sudden, sharp finality to it is what stings the most in March, and all but one team will feel that.
But that‘s not how the Tar Heels wanted to go out.
As Berry exited for the final time, he didn‘t cry. Not visibly. He hugged his coaches and his teammates, but his face stayed flat. Pinson, though – who‘d stayed positive until the end – finally let it sink in what was happening, and he let the tears flow.
Both of them watched the video board above them as the final seconds of their college careers ticked away.
Williams – who will be a senior next year and the leader of this group – wrapped his arm around Berry on their way off the court, then hugged Pinson.
He didn‘t want to think about the future, though.
“It hasn‘t even been 30 minutes yet, so. I‘m just going to try to soak up whatever time I have left with them and then once they leave, we can adjust to life without Joel and Theo,” Williams said. “But that‘s not what we‘re doing right now.”
Johnson transferred to North Carolina from Pittsburgh, where he had a good first season and a bad next two. He was aching to experience a winning culture again and this team gave him that. Pinson and Berry gave him that.
“Coming into a new system as a fourth-year guy has its fair share of challenges, just getting used to a new team when I‘ve had a certain way, a certain team for so long,” Johnson said. “You could sense there‘s a special culture at Carolina, and that‘s what I came here for. They really meant a lot to me and getting adjusted to that and becoming a part of it all.”
Pinson and Berry were at the podium while their teammates fielded questions, which is how it will be for good soon enough. Pinson had cried in the immediate aftermath, but he wasn‘t crying anymore and neither was Berry.
“Probably the main reason I‘m not crying right now is because I‘ve enjoyed every single moment I had with Coach, Joel, and all my teammates in the past,” Pinson said. “That‘s s the hardest thing. I won‘t be able to get on a plane with them, five hours to LA, to spend more time with them. It‘s over.”
When he was back in the locker room, he had a hard time even using the correct tense. At one point, he said Carolina would have to get better at something, before visibly realizing that there was no more time left in the season to do that, no second chance.
His younger teammates were more visibly upset. The locker room, normally filled with laughter and yelling and all kinds of ambient noise, was silent except for reporters asking questions and the shower roaring in the background.
“I hate that they had to go out like this. I always feel like I could have done more,” Kenny Williams said. “You can‘t really put into words or measure the pain that you feel right now.”
“They meant the world to this program, to our team. They‘ve done so much. I really hate for it to end like this for them, for us,” Johnson said.
When Johnson was done talking, he very slowly and painstakingly cut the tape off of his ankle before he went into the shower one last time. They all dressed slowly, pausing to look at their phones and sometimes shaking their heads.
Pinson and Berry didn‘t go out the way they wanted, but what they accomplished is tough to match. They‘ve seen it all, the good and the bad. Pinson even put it in perspective when he said the message he‘d pass to his teammates is to remember this feeling, adding, “It‘s the same feeling we had – well, it‘s a little bit different when we lost the national championship game.”
Yes, it‘s probably a little bit more difficult to lose the national championship game on a buzzer-beater than to lose in the second round the year after winning a national title.
But losing Berry and Pinson felt like losing an era.
“They were main pieces in two Final Four runs – back to back at that, not even to mention the championship. So they‘ll be remembered in Carolina history forever,” Kenny Williams said. “It‘s no surprise that it feels a lot bigger than the season ending.”
That‘s why everyone in that locker room was taking in the loss in different ways, as Johnson astutely pointed out (“It hurts everybody in their own way, but in a very, very strong way,” he said). Kenny Williams has a ring, but couldn‘t play in last year‘s national title run with an injury. Berry and Pinson already had rings. Many of their younger teammates either didn‘t, or didn‘t play as big a role on the team that won.
And Johnson himself came to North Carolina because he wanted to go to a Final Four. He wasn‘t able to do that.
“The thing is, it goes on. A new season will come around. We‘ll go home. The sun will come up in the morning. You‘ve just got to do it again,” Johnson said.
“I said the same thing when I lost last year. It hurts. It sucks. It hurts. Ever since that moment last year, even though I didn‘t know where I‘d end up, all the work you put in leads to this, leads to this moment.
“To lose it in this way, it — it‘s tough.”
Johnson stopped, and swallowed hard, finally overcome by the moment.
“It‘s part of the game. One team is going to come out of the game with this feeling. We just didn‘t want it to be us.”