April 8, 2008
CHAPEL HILL North Carolina did not negate its successful season with an 84-66 loss to Kansas at the national semifinals, but the Jayhawks' 40-12 start to the game left a stain that will take some time to wash away.
The Tar Heels, ranked No. 1 in the final Associated Press poll and seeded No. 1 overall in the NCAA Tournament, took the floor at the Alamodome with so little fire or fight that the ugly start to the game will be remembered for quite a while as a synonym for futility at one's most important moment.
"I was embarrassed," junior Marcus Ginyard said. "I've never been so embarrassed in my life. I can't remember a time when I've been so embarrassed."
Carolina came back to make a game of it, but Kansas eventually just hit the Tar Heels with a knockout shot.
"We weren't tough enough to keep the hammer down," Ginyard said. "We obviously put a lot of pressure on them and started playing with some heart, some intensity and got it to the point where we were down five and weren't tough enough to keep pushing. They scored, and they scored and they scored.
"The biggest thing in the Final Four is the toughest, the best defensive team, wins it."
After two months of fitting that description, the Tar Heels resembled that team in no way during the first 13 minutes against Kansas. Carolina could not dribble, shoot, defend or rebound the ball in a competent fashion.
Kansas, on the other hand, could do nothing wrong in its pursuit of pounding on the Tar Heels as if they were a collection of nine-penny nails. At one point, the Jayhawks were shooting 68 percent to 24 for UNC.
"Early in the game, they were much more aggressive than we were," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "We sort of came out a little more casual than we'd like to. They hit us right between the eyes. We probably rushed things a little bit. They just kept hammering.
"But they were really something early in the game. And then we didn't play the way we wanted to early, to say the least."
UNC finished with a school-record 36 victories against three losses, a first-place finish during the regular season, the ACC Tournament title, the No. 1 ranking in the final AP poll, and the NCAA East Region championship.
It just seemed inadequate to the Tar Heels in those bleak moments after Kansas had made them look as human as any team had all season.
"I was surprised early," Williams said. "I didn't think we had the energy level. I was probably a little shocked at that time. But even at the half, I told them we could come back and win the game. We just didn't get over the hump. I told them we were right there when it was five or six. Then Kansas made a couple of great plays.
"This team was really special kids. We had no issues. That makes it hurt even worse. I apologized to them. Some how, some way I did not have my team as ready to play as Bill (Self) did. That hurts to say."
Tyler Hansbrough added two more awards for being the national player of the year during the week leading up to the Final Four, but even he could not slow the Kansas onslaught or get Carolina into the lead during a furious second-half comeback.
"The disappointment will be the hardest thing to live with," Hansbrough said. "I don't think any player on this team wanted to play like that. They just brought it. We didn't."
Therein lies the question that may never be answered. How could a team that had played so well, so poised and so resiliently during February and March, in particular, have come apart so completely?
"We were just out there," sophomore guard Wayne Ellington said. "We weren't out there playing Carolina basketball. We weren't executing. We weren't playing defense. We were just out there. We didn't have any intensity or any enthusiasm."
Even during its comeback, which saw Carolina cut the lead to four points, lapses in the defense that had fueled the comeback and an organized, smart offensive strategy that had become a trademark before the Kansas game vanished into the air of the Alamodome, which happened to be the site of a similar debacle in 1998 when Utah dealt the damage.
"We got a little impatient, especially toward the end," Ellington said. "We were all trying to come back on one shot. We would have been better to take it possession-by-possession."
NBA MAY BECKON FOR SOME
Now the question is how this team will handle the offseason, and the push some players may feel to leave Carolina before finishing the job.
Last year, a collapse in the final six minutes of the game against Georgetown led to an overtime loss. The memories of that game lived until UNC buried them with a victory against Louisville in this year's East Region final.
This time, the recollections may carry far longer for some players on this team. For senior Quentin Thomas, the length of the memory will be a lifetime. For Hansbrough, Ellington and sophomore point guard Ty Lawson, the length of time could be equally as long if either or all decide to pass on the remainder of their collegiate eligibility.
Hansbrough has said that he would return if UNC failed to win the national championship, and he may well do that. But given the number of awards he collected this year and the fact that Carolina did make it to a Final Four, he just as easily could decide to cash in and take the pro money. Despite some reservations about his pro potential, he is projected as a certain first-round pick.
Neither Ellington nor Lawson would seem to be making a smart decision to leave at this time. Each could improve his draft status with another season, but family considerations might drive choices that otherwise do not appear sound.
Hansbrough said he will take the information Williams provides and discuss it with his family, which is not pressuring him in any way. Lawson and Ellington said in San Antonio that they had not given their decisions much thought, but it's no secret that both players and especially Lawson, who's also projected as a first-round selection entered college with one eye on the NBA.
The eventual outcome to those three situations probably will decide whether the Tar Heels can earn another shot at the Final Four, and perhaps another round of redemption, a year from now.