GREENSBORO — It was the perfect opportunity: a lucky break in a season, and an era, full of bad ones.
Paris Kea squared her feet just inside the left wing and stared down possibly her easiest look of the entire ACC Tournament. It was her spot — where the North Carolina guard had scored the lion's share of her 28 points the day before in her homecoming against Boston College and from where she'd poured in a heavy dose of her 21 first-half points in Thursday's matchup with N.C. State.
The Tar Heels trailed by 11 points, their largest deficit thus far, and they had just eight minutes left to save their season. The Wolfpack had face-guarded Kea for most of the second half, determined to keep the hometown hero from sparking a second-round upset, and her teammates couldn't convert their own chances.
But when an overzealous defender bit too hard in the passing lane, it left Kea with a free look from her beloved spot. She lined up, almost surprised by her good fortune, and fired away with the confidence of an All-ACC first-teamer.
She missed, appropriately so, her shot just one in a string of missed opportunities for No. 12 seed UNC (15-16, 4-12 ACC) in Thursday's 77-64 loss to No. 5 seed N.C. State (24-8, 11-5 ACC) in the second round of the ACC Tournament in Greensboro Coliseum.
"The open three ..." Kea said after the game, shaking her head. "That kind of got me."
It was always going to be an uphill climb beating a team that won by double digits in each of the previous two meetings. But North Carolina shot out to an 11-3 lead in the first quarter behind three quick triples from Kea, who fed off the hometown crowd in Greensboro. Then came "the big run" — a dreaded sight for the UNC faithful in the past few years — as N.C. State scored 19 of the next 24 points to take a six-point lead into the second quarter.
The Tar Heels stayed within striking distance, but errors marred their comeback attempt. Midway through the second quarter, UNC down by five, sure-handed senior Jamie Cherry missed a pair of free-throw attempts after splitting her previous trip to the line. On the next possession, Kea targeted a streaking Cherry on the fast break but floated it beyond the baseline. Two plays later, Cherry missed Kea on a simple pass along the perimeter.
The Wolfpack built a double-digit lead early in the quarter, and North Carolina never again came within a possession.
"If we could have made a couple of those buckets and gotten it down to two or three points," head coach Sylvia Hatchell said, "then I think we would have really gotten an extra spurt of energy."
But they didn't. And it only got worse in the third quarter.
After Kea's shot went cold, the Tar Heels fed Janelle Bailey, the ACC Freshman of the Year, on nearly every possession. It worked, as it had the day before in a rare win. But Bailey got tangled up with N.C. State senior Akela Maize three minutes into the period, as the two started barking at one another. Bailey never stopped, taunting Maize and drawing an unsportsmanlike foul — giving N.C. State two free throws and a nine-point lead and sending Bailey to the bench with her third foul.
Ultimately, foul trouble was UNC's undoing late in the game. With Bailey and fellow freshman Jaelynn Murray — the Tar Heels' two best per-minute rebounders — fighting the whistle for much of the second half, the Wolfpack outrebounded North Carolina by seven in the final quarter, limiting much-needed second chances for the underdogs.
"We needed them down the stretch," Kea said.
It wasn't just the freshmen. Sophomore Taylor Koenen finished 1-of-8 for two points on Thursday, airballing more shots than she made. Cherry, in the final game of her memorable North Carolina career, had a career-high nine rebounds but a game-high four turnovers and missed 12 of her 15 shots, including five of her six three-point attempts.
"Just wish I could have made them," Cherry said. "But everything happens for a reason."
Kea wishes she had made hers, too. She scored a game-high 27 points, but it took her 23 shots to do so, and many of her 14 misses came in gut-wrenching fashion: the short-armed floater late in the third quarter; the botched layup a few minutes later; the airballed three in the fourth quarter, one of 10 straight UNC misses during a 6:42 scoreless run.
But none hurt more than that open three from just inside the left wing, her team down by 11. It was North Carolina's final opportunity to cut the deficit to single digits. Instead, it was another wasted opportunity in a 12-point quarter to close the regular season.
"I think it's more just a maturity thing with us," Kea said. "We've just got to be smart, even when we're tired: not taking bad shots, not giving the ball away, careless turnovers, staying out of foul trouble ...
"But we're growing. We're growing."
It's been a season, and an era, full of growing pains for a team still emerging from the shadow of an NCAA investigation that rocked the program, even without sanctions. Since the summer of 2015 — when Allisha Gray, Stephanie Mavunga and Jessica Washington, three key members of a top-ranked 2013 recruiting class, all transferred in the wake of potential penalties — the Tar Heels haven't had a winning season, their third straight losing campaign secured with Thursday's loss. Before 2015, North Carolina hadn't had consecutive losing seasons since before its 1994 championship season.
This season epitomized the tumultuous nature of the post-transfer stretch. The Tar Heels had the talent to challenge almost any team in the ACC, what with Kea and Bailey receiving all-conference honors and Cherry serving as a threat to hit five threes and a game-winner on any given night. But the spinning wheel of adversity — inexperience, depth, injuries, you name it — beset the potential of this group and relegated it to near-victors in three-quarters of its conference games.
The Tar Heels had Louisville, the ACC champions and fourth-ranked team in the country, on the ropes in late February before the defense folded in the fourth quarter. They nearly beat N.C. State in January before the offense froze in the final minutes, and they overcame a 19-point deficit three days later against Duke in an iconic overtime win — only to allow a 19-0 run to the Blue Devils a month later in the regular-season finale, their ninth consecutive loss.
North Carolina held a legitimate lead in nearly every ACC game this season, be it halftime or later. But time and time again, the Tar Heels failed to seize their opportunity.
"Those are ones that we should have won," Kea said. "We should have had those wins, no doubt. The third quarter just seems to be our struggle."
It was again on Thursday, with the Wolfpack carrying enough momentum into the fourth quarter to glide through the final 10 minutes. Despite its fast start, UNC fell behind in nearly every area: field goals, three-point shooting, free throws, rebounding, turnovers. And, of course, points.
"If a few more buckets had gone down," Hatchell said after the game, "we'd be celebrating right now and getting ready to play Duke tomorrow."
But they didn't. The season is over for the Tar Heels, perhaps mercifully so, as they'll watch the NCAA Tournament from home for the third time since that 2015 offseason.
What about next year?
North Carolina returns all but one player from a roster led by Kea and Bailey, both early All-ACC candidates, and it welcomes back injured guards Stephanie Watts and Destinee Walker after year-long hiatuses. Bring in South Carolina natives Shayla Bennett and Jhileiya Dunlap — two of the top three JUCO prospects of 2018 — from Gulf State College (Fla.) and two-sport star Claudia Dickey from Charlotte Latin School, and the Tar Heels look like worthy candidates for a 2018-19 resurgence.
"It's been a joy to coach these kids ..." Hatchell said. "I'm excited about the team that we have in place for next year."
We've been here before, though, when Watts and Walker were scheduled to join this year's roster in the supposed end of an era. They never did, as Bailey, Kea and Cherry weren't enough to usher in a new dawn for the program. The team was better than its record showed, but the players were left pondering the missteps that led to every missed opportunity.
Maybe next year will be different. If Kea and Bailey can sustain or even build upon their level of play, the addition of Watts — a former ACC Rookie of the Year — and Walker are more than enough to offset Cherry's absence, irreplaceable as she's been to the program. Koenen and Murray have both shown promise through rough stretches, and another offseason could do wonders for each. The newcomers will likely outpace the non-Bailey production of this year's freshman class, with a chance to do much more.
Still, it's only a chance, and the Tar Heels have had plenty of those in recent years. Can they finally seize this one?