COLUMN: Forget "the shot" — shed your tears for two remarkable careers

COLUMN: Forget "the shot" — shed your tears for two remarkable careers

They knew they would cry. They just hoped it wouldn’t be in defeat.

The tears flowed for hours for the North Carolina seniors and their sentimental coach, from the pregame ceremony before Tuesday’s loss to Miami until well after the final buzzer. The deciding shot was as shocking as the last buzzer-beater against this team, this one a cruel and unforgettable end to the home careers of two Tar Heel favorites. But they didn’t have time to dwell.

Joel Berry went first, forced to say his goodbyes just moments after No. 9 UNC’s stunning 91-88 loss in its home finale. He grabbed the microphone, dabbed his face with his jersey and forced a smile as he waved to the Smith Center crowd for the final time.

"For some reason, I don’t know why,” he said, “people love to hit game-winners on us like that.”

 Joel Berry (2) was emotional leading up to Tuesday's senior night, but he still tied his career high with 31 points and scored seemingly all of UNC's points down the stretch in the loss to Miami. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Joel Berry (2) was emotional leading up to Tuesday's senior night, but he still tied his career high with 31 points and scored seemingly all of UNC's points down the stretch in the loss to Miami. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Tuesday’s shot was one the Tar Heels (22-8, 11-6 ACC) wanted the Hurricanes (21-8, 10-7 ACC) to take, just 4.1 seconds after the game-tying three-pointer that everyone knew Berry would make. And with the game tied, Miami's Ja'Quan Newton barreled toward the backpedaling senior, who knew the visitors were in the bonus. Berry wouldn’t lose his final home game on cheap free throws.

So, instead, Newton took two steps from the half-court line and drained a running three-pointer as time expired. Game over. Tears shed. Memories seared on senior night.

It reignited the trauma of the 2016 national title game against Villanova, when senior Marcus Paige’s final shot with 4.7 seconds left — a miracle double-clutch three-pointer — was one-upped by Kris Jenkins’ game-winner from a few paces past midcourt, the first buzzer-beating three in NCAA championship history.

Berry instantly recalled that pain, as did the more than 20,000 fans in attendance. It was fresh in their minds after a near replica played out before them — from nearly the same spot on the court — a twisted final act in an otherwise thrilling performance.

That Villanova shot is a memory Tar Heel fans are eager to forget. Tuesday’s shot is one Miami fans never will.

"This is one thing I always dreamed about,” said Newton, who scored the Hurricanes’ final nine points on Tuesday. “I always said I would hit a game winner like this."

Much like Jenkins’ shot did to that 2016 title game, Newton’s shot will overshadow the memorable moments from Tuesday’s game. No one will remember Berry tying his career high with 31 points or scoring 19 of UNC’s final 25 points in the second half, a senior possessed in his final home game. They won’t remember Theo Pinson’s 12 points (including two threes) and career-high 11 assists, the first such double-double by a Tar Heel since Marcus Paige did so in 2015.

They also won’t remember UNC’s overzealous play offensively, with six players combining for 13 turnovers. They won’t remember Miami converting 50 percent from three — the same percentage in each of the Tar Heels’ last three losses — or shooting 54.8 percent from the field, best by any North Carolina opponent this season, to snap the Tar Heels’ six-game winning streak.

"You want it so bad,” Pinson said, “instead of just going out there and playing basketball.”

 Theo Pinson (1) says he'll be haunted by the mistakes he made in Tuesday's loss to Miami. But he also was a key reason why UNC was in the game at all. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Theo Pinson (1) says he'll be haunted by the mistakes he made in Tuesday's loss to Miami. But he also was a key reason why UNC was in the game at all. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Soon, it'll all be forgotten under the magnitude of Newton's heroic heave. But Tuesday was a night of remembrance for the Tar Heels’ two beloved seniors. And one shot wouldn’t change that.

It started earlier in the week, when head coach Roy Williams told his players at practice to give all they had in the coming days to honor the seniors. Berry made it until Tuesday’s shootaround before he started getting emotional. By the time the pregame introductions rolled around, he couldn’t hold it in.

“I got halfway through the line when they called my name ...” Berry said, “and I just started bawling.”

Every tear hearkens back to 2014, when he committed to North Carolina alongside Pinson and Justin Jackson, the eventual ACC Player of the Year and first-round NBA draft pick. The three comprised the 10th-ranked class in the country, per 247Sports, but Williams calls it possibly the school’s most significant recruiting class in the past 50 years.

Berry had always wanted to be a Tar Heel. He still remembers watching Sean May highlights with his mom in their home in Apopka, Florida, over a dozen years ago. But when Berry's recruitment came, UNC was embroiled in an NCAA investigation into alleged academic misconduct. Opposing coaches and fellow recruits warned Berry — a four-star recruit and coveted point guard in Florida — that he might not ever play in the NCAA Tournament if he went to Chapel Hill.

"A lot of people told me it was a mistake coming here …” he said. “(But) we believed in Coach.”

Pinson, a five-star forward from Greensboro who grew up rooting for Duke, also bought in when Williams called. He didn’t start at first, and multiple foot injuries delayed his progress through his sophomore and junior seasons. But this year, he’s developed into a stat-stuffing point forward with filthy court vision and the uncanny ability to always make a play when his team needs it most.

His personality has blossomed, too. He’s been the most eccentric and charismatic player on the team for four seasons, an endearing figure for Tar Heel fans and a stark contrast from his more serious coach.

"He has made Roy Williams a better coach,” Williams said. "He's added a lot to my life."

 Theo Pinson (1) has always been a character for the Tar Heels, thanks to Roy Williams allowing him to be. During Tuesday's senior night speeches, Pinson told his coach how he felt about him. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Theo Pinson (1) has always been a character for the Tar Heels, thanks to Roy Williams allowing him to be. During Tuesday's senior night speeches, Pinson told his coach how he felt about him. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Pinson feels the same way about Williams, too. Even when the oddball forward was a sparse contributor on the court, Williams let him express the fullest extent of his character off it.

On Tuesday, in his postgame speech, Pinson finally got the chance to thank him.

“I don't know if there's another coach in the country that would let me be Theo ..." he told his coach through tears. “I really can’t thank you enough for that.”

It was in the spirit of Dean Smith’s sage advice to Williams years before: tell somebody you love them before they’re gone.

Smith’s death in February 2015 was devastating for the Tar Heels, as was longtime assistant Bill Guthridge’s death three months later. The championship loss to Villanova, in a completely different sense, was another emotional blow for a team already saddled with the baggage of the ongoing NCAA investigation.

Through those years, Berry struggled with playing time and doubted his fit at UNC and his worth to the coaching staff. But he grew as a player, progressing from bench player as a freshman to ACC Tournament MVP as a sophomore to Final Four Most Outstanding Player as a junior — when he scored a game-high 22 points in the final against Gonzaga to bring home UNC’s sixth NCAA championship.

“Every time I get emotional, that's what I think about,” Berry said. “The road that we had to go through it be a top team in the country."

And so, with the backdrop of the two seniors’ careers hanging over Tuesday’s game, the Tar Heels set out to honor their veteran leaders. Luke Maye manned the paint to score the game’s first two buckets en route to his 15th double-double of the season. Cameron Johnson added 20 points on 70 percent shooting and almost singlehandedly kept UNC alive in the first half. And Kenny Williams, as usual, did all the little things — drawing a crucial charge in the first half, recording a vicious block in the second and hitting a late three-pointer to chip away at a double-digit deficit.

But Miami’s 16-point lead in the second half was too much to overcome — even for the seniors.

"I didn't want the guys thinking they had to win for me and Theo tonight,” Berry said. “I wanted to win for the sake of this team."

 Joel Berry (left) and Theo Pinson have won 52 games at home in their four-year careers. More importantly, they've won two ACC championships, appeared in two national title games and hung a championship banner in the Smith Center. | Photo by Alex Kormann

Joel Berry (left) and Theo Pinson have won 52 games at home in their four-year careers. More importantly, they've won two ACC championships, appeared in two national title games and hung a championship banner in the Smith Center. | Photo by Alex Kormann

To a man, the Tar Heels gave all they had but wished they had more. The seniors wish they had more time at the Smith Center, too, where they've won 52 games over the past four years. Every missed opportunity at No. 53 hurts more than most.

"It's gonna haunt me for a long time, not gonna lie,” said Pinson, who stewed over two easy misses almost an hour after the game. “But I gotta get over it and get ready for Saturday night."

The Tar Heels’ regular season ends this weekend in Durham, where they’ll try to become the first North Carolina team to sweep Duke since 2008-09. It’s just about the only thing this senior duo hasn’t done in the past four years.

Roy Williams wishes his seniors could give him another year, too. But he knows he couldn’t ask for much more: two ACC championships, two national title appearances and a championship banner — so far.

"You realize how fortunate I feel to have coached Joel Berry and Theo Pinson for four years?” Williams said after the game, eyes stained. “It doesn't get much better than that."

That's something no shot can ever change.

@CJacksonCowart

Photos by Alex Kormann