COLUMN: After a gimme-turned-tragedy, the Tar Heels have unfinished business

COLUMN: After a gimme-turned-tragedy, the Tar Heels have unfinished business

It felt like they were toying with us.

No matter how big North Carolina's deficit ballooned to in Tuesday's 91-88 loss to Miami, and no matter how many improbable shots Hurricanes guard Chris Lykes made, the Tar Heels were always going to win it.

After all, it was UNC’s senior night, a time to honor Joel Berry and Theo Pinson — two of the winningest players in the program’s storied history.

Carolina (22-8, 11-6) was riding a six-game win streak — its first since the one that ended with confetti and cut-down nets — and had climbed to No. 9 in the national rankings. Miami (21-8, 10-7) was an NCAA Tournament bubble team that only had one top-25 win to date: a home victory over No. 24 Middle Tennessee State.

But it didn’t matter who UNC was playing. It could have been the Monstars out there. Berry, who scored a game-high 31 points, and Pinson, who set a career high with 11 assists, just weren’t going to drop their final home game.

 Joel Berry (2) had 31 points in his Smith Center finale, including three with 4.1 seconds left to tie the game. But Miami's Ja'Quan Newton had other ideas, spoiling the senior night celebrations. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Joel Berry (2) had 31 points in his Smith Center finale, including three with 4.1 seconds left to tie the game. But Miami's Ja'Quan Newton had other ideas, spoiling the senior night celebrations. | Photo by Alex Kormann

So when Miami senior Ja’Quan Newton hit two free throws to give the Hurricanes a three-point lead with nine seconds left, it just didn’t matter. Because, for certain, Berry would be there to play hero as he had done so many times in his career.

And, sure enough, there he was to pull UNC from the flames. Berry’s high-arcing three-pointer with 4.1 seconds left was pure nylon.

Overtime was a cinch after the miracle shot, just like it was a sealed deal in a certain championship game. But the Tar Heels' assumptions doomed them in the same way they created the deficit in the first place.

Newton sank a half-court heave at the buzzer, the first since that game-that-shall-not-be-named, to make Miami’s NCAA Tournament status a definite and Carolina’s seed a question.

So why did fans assume this game was a gimme and players perform like it?

“Tonight, we got off our game a little bit,” Kenny Williams said. “For the most part, we beat ourselves.”

With a regular-season finale in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday and the postseason after that, it was a bad time for the Tar Heels to beat themselves.

Players and coaches alike denied the notion that sentiment held them back against the 'Canes, but it was hard to be convinced otherwise.

UNC’s last game was the Wednesday before, a win over Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. So Carolina had almost a full week to prepare for and think about sending its seniors off the right way.

Maybe it was too much time.

 Theo Pinson (1) dished a career-high 11 assists and played stout defense at times in Tuesday's loss to Miami. But the pressure got to him and the rest of the Tar Heels, who couldn't quite overcome a 16-point deficit on senior night. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

Theo Pinson (1) dished a career-high 11 assists and played stout defense at times in Tuesday's loss to Miami. But the pressure got to him and the rest of the Tar Heels, who couldn't quite overcome a 16-point deficit on senior night. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

Pinson was crying when being honored before the game, Berry held back tears and head coach Roy Williams was visibly emotional, as well.

UNC's coach apologized after the loss for his role in putting too much pressure on the seniors to win their last game in the Smith Center. Berry and Pinson offered apologies for the loss as well in their senior-night speeches.

But the trio did more than apologize. They made a promise.

“We aren’t done,” they all assured the feverish crowd.

And so the duo that defied expectation by committing to UNC under the cloud of NCAA investigation was set to defy history by becoming the first Carolina team to win it all after a senior-night loss.

The seniors have already put a lot behind them — the NCAA allegations, the gut-wrenching loss to Villanova — and now this, a senior-night loss, the first non-Duke one since 1995-96.

So who’s to say this team can’t do it again? It's certainly no time for assumptions.

@jleland_

Photos by Alex Kormann