COLUMN: Only pain, only silence after stunning loss ends UNC's season

CHARLOTTE — It always felt like this moment might come: a series of tenuous but tenable flaws all manifesting at the wrong time against the wrong opponent, spelling the end for a team so determined to avoid it. But it never seemed like it could come so early.

Yet here it was, painted on the faces of the North Carolina players — some defending champions stomaching their first NCAA Tournament loss in two years, some first-time Tar Heels craving the success this program had tasted for a historic two-year stretch and the decades before it.

This loss, an 86-65 defeat to Texas A&M, was UNC's first in this tournament since falling to Villanova on a devastating buzzer-beater in the 2016 title game. This pain wasn't that pain; nothing could be. But the shock was just as debilitating for the defending national champions, casualties of March sooner than anyone expected.

"I didn't picture it ending it like this," head coach Roy Williams said. "I pictured it ending with these guys having a huge smile on their face, but that's not college basketball."

 Joel Berry (2) could hardly stomach Sunday's loss to Texas A&M as the final game in his UNC career. He didn't expect it to come so soon, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

Joel Berry (2) could hardly stomach Sunday's loss to Texas A&M as the final game in his UNC career. He didn't expect it to come so soon, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

There's nothing to say after a loss like Sunday's, UNC's worst NCAA Tournament loss since 1990 and fifth-worst in program history. The second-seeded Tar Heels (26-11) looked lost just two hours from home, trailing for over three quarters of a game in which the seventh-seeded Aggies (22-12) were better in almost every way. A seven-point lead midway through the first half felt like a cruel joke two hours later, when the players sat in a losing locker room that echoed with finality.

Williams tried, pained as he was, to fill the silence in the immediate moments after the loss. He reflected on the storied careers of Joel Berry and Theo Pinson, who sat before him in their North Carolina jerseys for the final time. He challenged the younger players to use this loss as fuel, as the Tar Heels had a season ago. He told his players how much he loved and appreciated them, regardless of what had transpired.

But his words couldn't rewrite Sunday's historic result, one of the worst in program history. This was UNC's first NCAA Tournament defeat in Charlotte, in 13 tries, and its first second-round loss as the higher seed after eight straight wins. Nothing spoke louder than that.

"In that moment," Berry said, "Coach really couldn’t say anything.”

There are only so many explanations for a beatdown this brutal, one that took hold late in the first half and never softened. For months, this team had compensated for its small lineup with historic shooting numbers for a Williams-led group, beating more talented teams with experience and volume. But the Hall of Fame coach bludgeoned his players with the importance of balance, both in valuing defense and diversifying their offensive approach.

The Tar Heels knew facing Texas A&M's two 6-foot-10 giants, Tyler Davis and Robert Williams, would be possibly their tallest task all season. Williams told them as much before the game. But they believed, as they always had, that three-point shooting and boundless effort would guide them to a third Final Four in as many years.

Sure enough, North Carolina started Sunday's game at its best — passing with ease, swarming Texas A&M's shooters and riding Berry's tenacious play to a 20-13 lead — but it spiraled fast. And once it did, the Tar Heels never stopped spinning.

 Tyler Davis (34) and Robert Williams (not pictured) altered nearly ever shot UNC took on Sunday, as Texas A&M rode its size and athleticism to a blowout victory in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

Tyler Davis (34) and Robert Williams (not pictured) altered nearly ever shot UNC took on Sunday, as Texas A&M rode its size and athleticism to a blowout victory in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

After mounting that seven-point lead, UNC missed its next eight shots as the Aggies ran roughshod in the paint, bullying their way to a 15-0 run behind nine of Davis' 18 total points. Williams tried to inspire his team in that empty locker room, down 14 points at halftime, but Texas A&M scored the first six points after intermission to build a 20-point lead.

"What they did to us inside early in the game shocked us ... because we weren't making outside shots," Williams said. "And now, all of a sudden, I felt like I had kids looking at the scoreboard tonight more than I ever had kids (doing that) in my life."

Those kids fired away from the three-point line, as best they knew how, but only one in five attempts found the net. Conversely, the Aggies made half their shots in both periods and blocked seven Tar Heel tries in the second half alone. 

With just under four minutes left, in the team's final huddle of the season, Williams implored his team to keep fighting. The five starters gathered on the court, arms around one another, in what felt like the longest timeout of the season. Pinson smacked his teammates across the "North Carolina" on their jerseys, knowing with a deep reluctance he was wearing his for the final time.

They still trailed by 21 points. But it wasn't over yet — not until the clock buried their season with zeroes.

“With this team, you’re always going to believe," Kenny Williams said. "That’s the crazy thing about playing here. Coach just makes you believe. Even when it got down to four minutes, I thought something was going to happen. Something was going to go our way.”

It never did. North Carolina never came within 18 points, shooting 33 percent and allowing 50 rebounds and 10 three-pointers.

Half a minute after motivating his starters in the huddle, he pulled them from the game for one final curtain call before the Spectrum Center crowd. Berry jogged off the player and Pinson sauntered, both stopping to embrace the coach who had vested his belief in them four years earlier. In this moment — the final moment — there was only one thing left he could say.

“He just told us that he loves us, and I know he truly means that …" Berry said. "Coach loves us a lot and I love him a lot. It's as simple as that."

 Joel Berry (2) and Roy Williams looked on for the entire second half, hoping UNC could cut into Texas A&M's sizable deficit. The Tar Heels never did, falling in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

Joel Berry (2) and Roy Williams looked on for the entire second half, hoping UNC could cut into Texas A&M's sizable deficit. The Tar Heels never did, falling in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. | Photo by Gabi Palacio

Berry finished with 21 points, Pinson added 11 assists and Luke Maye grabbed 11 rebounds — all inconsequential after a loss like this. It wasn't enough, from any and all of the Tar Heels, as the long-defining strengths of this team crumbled into one collective, crippling weakness.

And so the players sat in stunned silence, their coach grasping for the words that weren't there, swallowing a loss that could only be paired with anguish.

“All the work you put in leads to this moment; to lose it in this way, it’s tough ..." Cameron Johnson said, fighting back tears. "One team’s going to come out of this game with this feeling. We didn’t want it to be us.”

After most of the reporters filed out of the locker room, a solemn emptiness filled the space they left behind. Johnson sat in front of his locker, cradling his head in his hands, as one team official gingerly patted him on the back. Another stood above the sink, wiping her eyes with a paper towel as she stared into the mirror.

This wasn't the picture the Tar Heels envisioned before Sunday, but it's one they won't soon forget. Maybe they never will.

“There’s a lot of work we put in and a lot of positives that came out of this season," Johnson said. "And sometimes this moment kind of overshadows those and will for a long time.”

Eventually, the final players shuffled out of that losing locker room, leaving the final moments of their season behind. There were no whispers of condolences or consolations, none appreciating a regular season that surpassed expectations or anticipating a season of prospects renewed.

In a moment like this, there's only so much to be said.

@CJacksonCowart

Photos by Gabi Palacio