March Madness: UNC's Redemption
March Madness: After last year’s heartbreak, North Carolina are just two games away from redemption
Marcus Paige, the face of North Carolina’s basketball program, had just hit arguably the greatest shot in the history of the national championship game. Moments later, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins made the game-winning three as time expired, trumping Paige’s heroics and snatching the Tar Heels championship dreams. All-Americans Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige led North Carolina during the 2016 season in which they were considered the best team in college basketball. After their departure, many questioned if UNC would be able to replace the production and leadership that carried them through its previous seasons. During the offseason of summer ’16, Justin Jackson took the first step into his new role as one of UNC’s leaders. Jackson came up with a new name for the team’s group chat that would establish the goal for their upcoming season – “Redemption”.
Early in the season, North Carolina quickly showed they would remain among the nation’s elite. Led by Joel Berry along with the interior presence of Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, the Tar Heels dominated the Maui Invitational, winning by an average of nearly 27 points a game. The Heels finished its non-conference schedule with a 12-2 record as they prepared for a tough ACC schedule featuring the likes of Duke, Louisville, Virginia and Florida State. Sparked by the return of Theo Pinson and Justin Jackson’s rise to stardom, the Tar Heels won their second straight ACC regular season title. Despite losing to its Tobacco Road rival, Duke, in the semi-finals of the ACC tournament, Roy Williams’ squad still earned the #1 seed in the South Region of the NCAA tournament.
North Carolina dominated 16th seed Texas Southern in their first game, winning by 39 points. In the round of 32, UNC was challenged by a pesky Arkansas squad and had to rally down the stretch to prevent an upset by the Razorbacks. Playing in their third straight Sweet 16, Joel Berry and Justin Jackson combined for 50 points; carrying the Tar Heels past 4th seeded Butler. In the Elite 8, North Carolina would face a familiar foe in John Calipari’s star-studded Kentucky team.
In the rematch of their December meeting in Las Vegas, UNC and Kentucky would give fans an instant classic. The Tar Heels led UK at the half 38-33, but Kentucky took control in the second half taking a 64-59 lead with five minutes remaining. Roy Williams called a timeout to stopped Kentucky’s momentum and his team responded with a 12-0 run, giving the Heels a 71-64 lead with under a minute left to play. The final minute of play would mirror last year's national championship game. Kentucky’s star freshman, Malik Monk, made his second straight clutch three to tie the game at 73. Seconds later, Theo Pinson dribbled the length of the court before handing the ball off to Luke Maye, a former potential UNC walk-on, for the game-winning shot and a second consecutive trip to the Final Four. Behind Maye’s game-winner and breakout play (Luke was named the South’s region Most Outstanding Player), North Carolina sits just two games away from erasing the pain of last year's championship defeat. After Monday’s upcoming national championship, Justin Jackson may have to rename the team’s group chat again, but this time from “Redemption” to “Champions.”