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Mike Lopresti | | April 2, 2017

UNC one step away from redemption but not taking Zags lightly

  UNC will be the first team in a decade to appear in back-to-back title games.

GLENDALE, Ariz. — And now, the last night of the redemption tour.

North Carolina’s players have heard about Kris Jenkins until they are, well, Tar Heel blue in the face.

“I think this is maybe like the 50th time that we’ve kind of answered a question about that,” Justin Jackson said.

But it’s real enough. The pain is still there. The images, too. Joel Berry II, for instance, sitting forlornly at a microphone afterward, softly expressing his anguish. “Just the feeling of walking off the court, feeling the confetti fall, but it’s not for you. It’s a horrible feeling.”

Final Four: UNC outlasts Oregon
Now it’s one year later. The screensaver on Theo Pinson’s cellphone shows him sitting with a towel over his head, minutes after Jenkins’ shot went through. He gazes at it every day. Every. Single. Day.

“You can try to act like you don’t remember last year, but you’d be lying to yourself,” he said Sunday. “We’ve got to finish it.”

Roy Williams mentioned Sunday he has never watched the tape of that game, and he probably never will.

“The most difficult time I’ve ever had as a coach,” he called the minutes in the locker room afterward. Pinson said he has avoided all replays. “I don’t think you would watch it, either,” he said.

RELATED: UNC gets by Oregon, nabs second chance at a title

Monday is finally the chance to get over it. Or as Pinson said about what a victory would mean, “I can just throw away that tape and look at my ring.”

By now, after the Oregon escape, the Tar Heels must feel as if karma is on their side. A team that misses four free throws in the last six seconds of a one-point game and gets away with it must feel a sense of blessing.

Just in time, too. Monday night is the moment.

“I know it’s been in my mind a lot,” Berry said. “I just don’t want the same outcome. We’ve just got to focus on what’s going on right now and not worry about what happened last year. We can’t change that, we can only have an effect on what’s about to happen tomorrow.”

Gonzaga is in the way.  Gonzaga, a program hungry to prove it can take the last step after a series of early-round mishaps. Just like Villanova was. Gonzaga, with the coach who considers Williams a mentor, and watches the Tar Heels every chance he gets.

“I couldn’t respect a guy more in this business,” Mark Few said Sunday. Gonzaga, the program people once always called mid-major. But not lately, including the team the Zags just beat to go 37-1.

Final Four: Gonzaga defeats South Carolina
“It’s not 1997 anymore,” South Carolina’s Frank Martin said. “They were Cinderella and all that pretty stuff in ’97. They’ve been in this thing for 20 consecutive years. That’s as high-major as high-major can get.”

So never mind the David vs. Goliath angle. Once, that might have been true, but that was long ago. “A huge stretch” Jackson called the phase. “I actually just read through the story of David and Goliath yesterday. I don’t think that is what this is at all.”

Same for Williams. “When you start watching them it’s not that much difference. I’m not trying to blow my opponent up, I believe throughout the course of the season they did a better job that anybody.”

It was Few who said Sunday, “We don’t pretend or think we’re anywhere near the level with the tradition of Carolina or Duke or Kentucky. But at the same time, I think we do feel we’ve been a national entity for quite some time.

“We’re not going anywhere.”

RELATED: Kennedy Meeks' big rebound caps off career night

And it was the Zags’ Nigel Williams-Goss who said, “By no stretch of the imagination is a Gonzaga a mid-major. At no point in time did we feel we were at a mid-major. From the day we stepped foot on campus, from all our transfers to our freshmen, we said our goal was to win the national championship. It was a legitimate confidence.

“Now, sitting here 40 minutes away from a national championship is pretty crazy.”

It is through this 21st century juggernaut that the Tar Heels must now go for atonement.

The motive of redemption is not new. It has happened before in the Final Four.

Take North Carolina in 2009. Similar to now, except in place of last-second Villanova 3-pointer, insert first-half Kansas slaughter. The Tar Heels advanced to the Final Four in 2008 to face Williams’ old Jayhawks’ program, looked up in the first half, and were behind 40-12. They rallied gamely, but it ended 84-66.

“I’ve reminded our guys that last year we were happy to be here,” Williams said in 2009. “When we went out against Kansas, we looked around and said, `My goodness, we’re in the Final Four.’ They hit us right in the mouth.”

Bracket Breakdown: (1) Gonzaga vs. (1) UNC
Or Maryland winning in 2002, after blowing a 22-point lead to Duke in 2001.

“I don’t think I’m still over that,” Maryland’s Lonny Baxter said at the 2002 Final Four. “That’s why we were determined to get back.”

Or Duke in 1991. It’s never good to be on the right side of the hyphen of an historic score. That’s where the Blue Devils were in 1990, blown away 103-73 by UNLV in the most lopsided national championship game ever.

One year later, they upset the Rebels 79-77 and two days later won the championship, driven by the memory of a blowout. “I’ll be happy,” Bobby Hurley said then, “not to have any more questions on last year’s game.”

RELATED: What we learned from the Final Four, ahead of the national title game

Or UCLA in 1968, who lost the famous Astrodome game to Houston in January by two points, and then absolutely destroyed the Cougars 101-69 in the Final Four. Message sent.

“That was the best game we ever played,” the Bruins’ Lynn Shackelford said 50 years later. “Coach Wooden said that was the closest our team ever came to reaching its potential.”

So the mission of the Tar Heels is not unique, but it is deeply felt, born of the memory of how terrible it felt. That drove them all summer, Pinson said, getting guys eagerly out of bed for the 7 a.m. weight sessions they used to dread. “We just woke up knowing we need this, we need this to get back there,” he said.

Now it’s time, one way or the other. No more waiting. “There is no tomorrow,” Jackson said.

“I think it just calms everybody down,” Pinson said. “We’re here. This is what we’ve been fighting for all year. Now that we’re here, I can finally say it’s been tough to just focus on every game. Now, I say just play. This is what we’ve been waiting on.”

Listening to “One Shining Moment” can ease a lot of pain, but the 2017 Tar Heels understand something very well. The hard part is making sure they’re playing it for you.

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