It may not have ended the way fans wanted, but what an incredible ride that coach Hubert Davis’ Tar Heels took fans on during this past season.
The Regular Season
At times the Tar Heels struggled. Many of the players will tell you the turning point was back to back losses to Miami and Wake Forest. After those losses many pundits had UNC squarely on the bubble. After another tough loss to Pittsburgh, many people had the Tar Heels one of the last four teams to make the tournament. Carolina was able to string together some wins, but flew under the radar until a rematch with Duke on March 5th.
Duke came in ranked #4 in the country and it was Coach K’s last home game. With 98 former players and even NBA commissioner Adam Silver in the building, it was supposed to be a coronation. North Carolina had other things on their mind. The Tar Heels outscored Duke 55-40 in the 2nd half – spoiling the party in a 94-81 win. The win solidified UNC’s tournament bid and was the first of several signature wins.
UNC started the NCAA tournament with a dominant win over Marquette, setting up a showdown with #1 seed Baylor. The Tar Heels dominated Baylor throughout most of the game, pushing their lead to 25 points. What happened next was wild. Brady Manek was thrown out of the game for a flagrant two foul, then minutes later Caleb Love fouled out. Baylor surged back to tie the game and send it into overtime. UNC showed their toughness in overtime, finding a way to survive and advance – beating Baylor 93-86. UNC pushed past UCLA 73-66 after Caleb Love scored 27 of his 30 points in the 2nd half and then dominated Saint Peters 69-49 to advance to the Final Four and a rematch with Duke.
The rematch was everything it was hyped up to be – a back and forth battle that came down to the last few possessions. Caleb Love had another spectacular 2nd half and hit the shot of his life over Mark Williams with 25 seconds left to give UNC a four-point lead and ultimately the win over it’s rivals from Durham for the 2nd time in a month. The Tar Heels would then jump out in front of Kansas, but the Jayhawks rallied back in the 2nd half and the two teams battled until the end. UNC fought through injuries to take the lead with 1:40, but Armondo Bacot went down again, Kansas made a few more plays down the stretch and it was the Jayhawks who won the national title. UNC just came up short, but they left everything on the court.
This run during March has brought Carolina back to relevancy and should have fans excited about the future. Both Caleb Love and Armondo Bacot could test the NBA waters. How they perform and thr feedback they receive at the combine could determine if they stay in the draft or decide to return to Chapel Hill. I believe there’s a good chance both come back. UNC will add two top 50 recruits in Seth Trimble and Jalen Washington. Also joining them will be forward Tyler Nickel and Will Shaver. The transfer portal could be a tool where UNC can go to reload on talent as hundreds of players have put their name in. Puff Johnson should have a larger role next year and if he plays like he did in the 2nd half of the national championship game he’ll be solidified in the rotation. Dontrez Styles could slide into the four spot that’s left by Brady Manek graduating. There’s still a lot to be determined, but if Caleb Love and Bacot return UNC could be right back in the Final Four next year.