My PaPa used to say, “If ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ were candy and nuts, what a merry Christmas it would be.” He used that phrase to share some reality with my cousins and me when we lamented how we thought things should have gone. After losing six games by three points or fewer for the first time since the 1940-41 season, PaPa’s message summarizes how Carolina fans will remember this season’s Tar Heels.
If 11 players didn’t miss a combined 95 games due to injury (including Cole Anthony, Garrison Brooks and Brandon Robinson only playing together in 11 of 31 games), maybe the Tar Heels don’t have losing streaks of four, five and seven games and set a school record for most conference losses in a season.
But for Tre Jones ricocheting a foul shot off the rim at just the right angle to get it back (one of the luckiest plays you’ll ever see) and sinking a Hail Mary shot, the Tar Heels beat Duke in regulation and maybe that’s a turning point in the middle of conference play. Instead, we are left to wonder if the Blue Devils scoring seven points in the last 16 seconds of overtime was fate, or if tragedy could’ve been avoided by just one of three ACC referees bothering to notice Andrew Platek getting shoulder blocked into the Duke bench.
If the Duke fiasco were the only time the Tar Heels snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, maybe Carolina could’ve found its stride before it was too late, but it was the peak in the middle of a series of startling collapses.
Four weeks before Wendell Moore’s impersonation of Lorenzo Charles sealed Duke’s miracle in Chapel Hill, Aamir Simms’s three-pointer with only three seconds remaining completed a 10-point comeback by Clemson in the final 1:55 of regulation. The Tigers would go on to win by three in overtime, improving their record to 1-59 in Chapel Hill. Eleven days later, the Tar Heels would stage a tragic double-overtime encore, squandering a 12-point lead over Virginia Tech with 12:59 to play in Blacksburg when Tyrece Radford sank a game-winning floater with 0.3 seconds left.
But that’s only the half of it. The Tar Heels had their hearts (and ours) ripped out three more times, twice at home where they lost to Boston College by one, despite Anthony having the ball in his hands with 17 seconds to play, and to UVa by two, courtesy of Tomas Woldetensae’s three-point dagger with 0.8 seconds left. (Woldetensae’s shot was fired from the same spot where the Three Blind Referees somehow missed Moore shoulder blocking Platek. I assume we’ll be replacing that section of the floor this offseason).
Not to be outdone, Notre Dame erased a 15-point deficit in the final 8:37, capping it off with a Nate Laszewski 3-pointer with only 1.8 seconds remaining.
If you’re scoring at home, that’s six (6!!!) last-second shots to win games or force overtime, including two by the hated Blue Devils in the same game, plus a one-point loss to Boston College. In hindsight, it’s surprising that Azar Swain missed that 30-footer at the buzzer for Yale. Sure, this season’s 13-18 (6-14 in the ACC) record was driven by injuries and poor shooting just as much or more than bad luck, but at times, it felt like Carolina was the ACC’s version of Murphy’s Law.
The Carolina blue sky did peek through the last-second heartbreak occasionally this season. Garrison Brooks was a beast, outplaying his spot on the All-ACC Second Team. Freshmen Armando Bacot and Anthony Harris confirmed they have great talent, and it was encouraging to see Jeremiah Francis playing after two knee surgeries.
Brandon Robinson showed incredible heart, seeming to constantly be returning from injury and playing through pain, most memorably in the win over NC State in Raleigh.
Christian Keeling deserves immense credit for the mental toughness to persevere through a three-month shooting slump and earn starter minutes down the stretch. Robinson, Keeling and the other departing Tar Heels won their senior game against Wake Forest. And of course, it was nice to get the usual two wins over NC State.
Those joys aside, since the Tar Heels didn’t pull off an unprecedented ACC Tournament miracle, this season ended with a thud, proving Coach Williams right that this team was “the least gifted team I’ve ever coached.” (Finishing the regular season ranked 305 out of 353 Division I teams in Effective Field Goal Percentage shows Williams was just being honest.)
Still, as we “go where we go and do what do”, Tar Heel fans will wonder how this season would have turned out if a few of those six buzzer-beaters rimmed out, or if the Carolina team we saw at the beginning and the end of the season was there for the middle to avoid going 1-5 against the likes of Pitt, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Wofford. That’s all ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’ as my PaPa would say, but I sure wish we got to find out.