COLUMN: We'll always remember Jamie Cherry

Allow yourself, for a moment, to forget about the result and focus on the player.

She was the first off the court when the buzzer sounded, her head sinking from the gravity of her final home game. She can't forget the final score: Syracuse 86, North Carolina 80. She probably never will.

She didn't leave the court once during Thursday's loss, playing all 40 minutes for the sixth time this season. She's played more minutes than any player in the conference this season, an indispensable piece for these Tar Heels (14-14, 4-11 ACC). She can't afford to rest; she hasn't for years.

She shook hands with each member of the Orange (21-7, 9-6 ACC) before joining her teammates for her final rendition of the alma mater in Carmichael Arena. She dried her eyes with her sweat-soaked North Carolina jersey, one she wishes she could wear forever.

"Playing my final game here, it's tough and emotional," said Jamie Cherry, the lone senior on this year's team. "But I had to put the emotion aside."

 Jamie Cherry was honored before her final home game for UNC. Her career is one that won't soon be forgotten. | Photo courtesy Jeffrey A. Camarati (UNC Athletic Communications)

Jamie Cherry was honored before her final home game for UNC. Her career is one that won't soon be forgotten. | Photo courtesy Jeffrey A. Camarati (UNC Athletic Communications)

On Thursday, she led the Tar Heels in the ways she knows best: she hit four of her nine three-point attempts and made all seven of her free-throw attempts. She finished with four steals and played through four fouls — as if she'd spend one second on the bench in a game like this.

She scored half of North Carolina's 18 points in the fourth quarter — two threes and three free-throws after coaxing a foul beyond the arc — to finish with 23 points, her most in ACC play and third-most on the year. It was two points shy of freshman Janelle Bailey, who reached 25 points for the third time this year.

It's symbolic, in a way: Cherry leading her team in almost every facet, yet still giving way to the future. It's how she'll always be remembered.

"I've never played with a better point guard than Jamie Cherry ..." Bailey said. "I'm going to miss her a lot, and I know she's done a lot for this program."

Cherry has always wanted to restore this team to its former glory, just as she did for West Craven High School. She grew up idolizing Ivory Latta, the legendary UNC point guard who now sits in the stands and cheers for the player she inspired. She wanted to be like her, lead like her. Maybe, one day, she'd be revered like her.

Cherry came to Chapel Hill four years ago as the pride of New Bern — a small town on the North Carolina coast — but an overshadowed recruit on the heels of UNC's top-ranked 2013 recruiting class. She sat behind Latifah Coleman, a savvy veteran and current Tar Heel coach, and spent every minute she could learning from Latta, who worked on Sylvia Hatchell's staff for two years.

Then, in the summer of 2015, the final three members of that sterling recruiting class transferred. Latta left, too, to focus on her professional playing career. Cherry became one of only five players remaining from the previous year's roster. It was her turn to lead.

"A lot of other people, when they don't think things are going to go their way, they tuck their tails and run," Hatchell said. "But that's not Jamie Cherry."

 Jamie Cherry (10) never stopped shooting in Thursday's loss to Syracuse — or at any point throughout her four-year career, even when the team crumbled around her. | Photo courtesy Jeffrey A. Camarati (UNC Athletic Communications)

Jamie Cherry (10) never stopped shooting in Thursday's loss to Syracuse — or at any point throughout her four-year career, even when the team crumbled around her. | Photo courtesy Jeffrey A. Camarati (UNC Athletic Communications)

The sophomore didn't rest. Instead, she took the reins and led a group of mostly freshmen and walk-ons to a 14-18 record, including 11 wins at Carmichael Arena. The next year, UNC went 15-16, winning 11 at home, and reached the second round of the ACC Tournament.

The Tar Heels finished with 11 wins at home this year, too, though they'll likely finish with a losing record for the third straight year. It's been a three-year stretch of mostly forgettable results, something Cherry knew could be a reality in the summer of 2015.

But she stayed. Through broken bones and mounting losses, she's never missed a game in her four-year career.

"I think that's the greatest thing about Jamie is her character ..." Hatchell said. "I really think that's something to be admired."

Through 126 career games, Cherry is one of only seven Tar Heels with 1,500 points and 400 assists, and she's fifth all-time with 445 made free throws. She's probably somewhere on the leaderboard in buzzer-beaters and loose balls recovered, too.

She's never led the Tar Heels in scoring for a season; she won't this year, either. But she's always been a leader.

"The amount of time she put into me getting better and making me mentally tough ..." Bailey said, trying to find the words. "I appreciate what she's done for me, and I'll never forget it."

Cherry has had plenty of unforgettable moments in her four-year career. Even through the tears, she smiles when remembering the 2015 NCAA Tournament, when as a freshman she drove the length of the court and drilled hit a buzzer-beating leaner from the three-point line to lift UNC over Ohio State and into the Sweet 16. To this day, it's her favorite moment in Carmichael Arena.

But who could forget two games earlier, when she fired a 40-footer to send UNC to overtime against Louisville in the ACC Tournament? What about the next year's ACC Tournament, when she launched a prayer from the logo to summon overtime in a first-round loss to Pittsburgh? Or the next year, when she scored a career-high 32 points to take vengeance against Pittsburgh and secure UNC's first postseason victory since the Ohio State win?

There wasn't a "Cherry bomb" to save the Tar Heels on Thursday; ironically, it was Syracuse's 20 three-point shots, an ACC single-game record, that spoiled Cherry's home finale. But the senior never rested. Down the stretch, when Hatchell's team needed a bucket, the coach called "Captain" to get a shooter open.

Guess who? Cherry buried a triple with 3:11 left to cut the deficit to nine.

 Jamie Cherry's run at Carmichael Arena is over, but her career isn't done yet. Neither is her impact. | Photo by C Jackson Cowart

Jamie Cherry's run at Carmichael Arena is over, but her career isn't done yet. Neither is her impact. | Photo by C Jackson Cowart

It wasn't enough. The Orange stifled UNC's offense in the final minutes and smothered Cherry on the perimeter. She missed a three with 47 seconds left, her final shot in Carmichael Arena; the final buzzer confirmed as much.

And so she bowed her head, wiping tears from her eyes as she walked through the tunnel for the final time, her fans treating her to a standing ovation.

"(It was) very emotional just knowing that I wouldn't ever put this jersey on and play in Carmichael again ..." Cherry said. "I wish I could get another year back."

She's not done yet. The Tar Heels have one more regular-season game left — a rematch with Duke this Sunday in Cameron Indoor Stadium — before the ACC Tournament starts on Wednesday, Cherry's final postseason appearance. And you know she'll save the best for last.

So don't lose sight of Cherry when she takes off that North Carolina jersey for the final time. Forget about the result and focus on the player. Remember those in the crowd who watch Cherry's final moments and come to Chapel Hill years from now, hoping to lead like she did.

Maybe one day, when Cherry can afford to rest, she'll sit in the stands and cheer them on.

@CJacksonCowart

Header photo by Caleb Jones