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Mike Lopresti | | March 25, 2017

North Carolina eyes Final Four return, shot at redemption

  Roy Williams' Tar Heels look to finally put the memories of 2016 to rest.

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — The emptiness of defeat helped drive the North Carolina Tar Heels here. The pain of it, and the unanswerable question of what-if.

Come Sunday night, when North Carolina plays Kentucky in an A-list South regional title game to get to the Final Four, it will be 356 days since Villanova’s Kris Jenkins buried that 3-pointer in Houston. The shot dropped in, the buzzer went off, the confetti rained down upon the national champion Wildcats, and all the Tar Heels could do was trudge back to the locker room, then go home to no parade.

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But maybe, for the ones coming back, also to vow to put in extra hours, so this season would end differently.

“We were four seconds away,” Isaiah Hicks said Saturday. “Just to see that dream taken away right in front of you, that’s all the motivation you need. Of course, nobody likes to lose, but that one, when you’re right there, all of us, we just need that second chance.”

Now, to get that chance, they have to go out and beat Kentucky Sunday. And Kentucky has won 14 in a row.

Actually, if the Tar Heels draw extra incentive from past defeat, they’ll get it double-barreled for Sunday. Not just the memory of last April, but also of last Dec. 17, when these two teams got together and played — what has as good an argument as any — the game of the year. Kentucky 103, North Carolina 100.

  Kentucky's 103-100 victory in December is still fresh in Isaiah Hicks (4) mind.
There were 140 shots taken in 40 minutes that day in Las Vegas, and 54 percent of them were made. There were only 19 turnovers, the fireworks show coming from elegant execution by a floor of mega-talented players. Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox mentioned the Wildcats had studied the film and noticed North Carolina scored 34 points on possessions that lasted seven seconds or under. It was Usain Bolt playing basketball.

Joel Berry II had 23 points for the Tar Heels, and he was only the fourth leading scorer of the afternoon. That’s because Fox had 24 and Carolina’s Justin Jackson 34, and the Wildcats’ Malik Monk 47, the freshman not stopping until he hit the game-winner with 16.7 seconds left.

“Malik went crazy,” Jackson said.

Theo Pinson, injured and out that day for the Tar Heels, remembered thinking at halftime there was no way Monk could keep it up. “Then he came out the second half doing the same thing," he said. "I thought, `There’s nothing we can do with this tonight.’”

When it was over in T-Mobile Arena, John Calipari put it well: “If you watched that game, if you never liked basketball, you’re going to start liking basketball.”

Flash forward three months.

Calipari on Saturday:  “All I remember is they scored a hundred on us."

Monk: “That’s in the past. We’ve got to worry about the future right now.”

North Carolina coach Roy Williams on Monk: “That’s as good of an exhibition as I’ve ever had in 29 years as a head coach, and I’ve had some guys that lit us up quite a bit.”

Pinson:  “We‘re not going to sit here and act like that’s just out of our mind. We remember what happened.”

But here’s the thing. That loss didn’t hurt North Carolina .00001 percent as much as Jenkins. Not in December. The anguish of April is still there.

“The most inadequate feeling you can ever have as a coach,” Williams said. “What was I supposed to say to my team in the locker room? It’s just like somebody reached into your chest and pulled your heart out and shook it right in front of your face and taunted you. There was nothing I could say that would remove the pain that those kids felt and our staff felt.”

WATCH: Villanova's national championship recreated in legos

Said Pinson, “If we had lost by 10 or something, it would have hurt because we were in the national championship game. But the way we lost, it just still burns inside you. It’s still tough to think about, but at the same time, you’ve got another chance. You’ve got to be in the moment.”

What made the folk tale of the shot even more remarkable is that Jenkins is the adopted brother of North Carolina’s Nate Britt, who is still a Tar Heel. He scored five points with five assists against Butler. So guess who was on the front of the Carolina section Friday night?

There Jenkins was; a living, breathing, on-his-cellphone reminder of the championship nightmare. With Villanova summarily out, he had nowhere else special to go, but there was something surreal about it.

“That’s just how our family is. We all support each other the best way we can,” Britt said Saturday. “It’s not awkward for me. I think most of the veterans, who have been around him, I don’t think it’s awkward. I think it’s more awkward for fans and people who aren’t in the immediate circle.”

Indeed, Carolina’s Kennedy Meeks said, “He’s a great dude, and he’s one of our friends, I guess you could say. And he’s Nate’s brother, so you really can’t avoid him. He just happened to hit a big-time shot against us last year and of course, you can dislike him at the moment for it, but at the same time you’ve got to move forward.”

Williams told the story Saturday of how it was only a couple of weeks after the championship game last April that one of his assistants walked into the office with a strange question. Jenkins was on campus, in the building, wondering if he could play a pickup game with the Tar Heels, whose hopes he had crushed only a fortnight before.

“I said, `No, tell him I’m sending in a hitman to take care of him.’ But he played pick-up with our guys that afternoon.”

Jenkins will be back Sunday night, the visible symbol of the sad ending the Tar Heels seek to rewrite. Maybe a little unusual, but the Tar Heels will be focused on the opponent in front of them. The team they scored 100 points against, and it wasn’t enough.

“We understand what we’re trying to do, get back to the Final Four, have another chance at the national title game,” Pinson said. “But we’ve got to take care of tomorrow’s game first. Those guys, they’re young but they’re still hungry. They want to be in there too.”

Another 103-100? “Different teams,” Jackson said. “And different time of year.”

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