Smith: The heartbreak of UNC and the greatness of the NCAA Tournament

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It hurts my heart to write this, but I’m a journalist first and a fan second.

It’s been a tough 2016 for North Carolina sports. First, the Carolina Panthers got humbled in Super Bowl 50 against the Denver Broncos and on Monday, the North Carolina Tar Heels fell to one of the greatest shots in NCAA Tournament history. Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer that will rank in the annals of the late Lorenzo Charles’ dunk with no time remaining against Houston, allowing the Kardiac Pack of 1983 to get a victory.

It does not soothe the pains of a Carolina fan.

In 1983, the Cougars’ fraternity of Phi Slama Jama could get away with the indignation of the social network explosion 33 years later. All I’ve seen on social media is the crying Jordan memes on the faces of Brice Johnson, Marcus Paige and Roy Williams among others. Hell, I saw a Jordan meme on Michael Jordan himself. Duke fans came out of the woodwork to get some revenge and there’s nothing a Tar Heel could do about it. Yeah, the comeback of “at least we were there” provides 1.3 seconds of relief, but it means nothing considering the Blue Devils actually finished the job in 2015.

That being said, it was a great season for Carolina and the ACC as a whole. To have six of the Sweet 16 teams in the mix — the Tar Heels, Blue Devils, Miami, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Virginia — spoke volumes of the conference’s strength. A Big East representative showcased their abilities despite the conference crumbling — remember, the Orangemen, Fighting Irish, Connecticut and Louisville were a part of it — but at the moment, the Atlantic Coast Conference reigned supreme in 2015-16. Too bad nobody came away with their One Shining Moment at the end.

By no means did Villanova sneak into the tournament. The Wildcats were the No. 1 team in the country at one point and showed plenty of grit in a come-from-behind win over Kansas to even make it to the Final Four. Villanova’s pasting of Oklahoma was as shocking as it was admirable and the defense was truly legitimate. To outscore North Carolina’s bigs in the paint was a shock, but it’s attributed to Coach Jay Wright’s gameplan and an unflappable unit to execute it to perfection. We can analyze the game from a myriad of angles, but the Wildcats earned this title.

So, while Villanova parties like 1985 and gives Philadelphia its first win since the Phillies captured a World Series in 2008, Tar Heel Nation is forced to lick its wounds. While the majority of the team will be back next season, losing Johnson and Paige will be cataclysmic. Paige was particularly instrumental as North Carolina came back from 10 down, with his twisting 3-pointer in the final seconds, setting the stage for Jenkins’ heroics.

While I deal with the derision from Duke fans, I’ll try to take solace in one of the greatest games played through the duration of college basketball. For neutral fans, it showcases how crazy the tournament is in the best way, with the analysis of experts going out the window and insanity taking over. As years pass, Villanova vs. North Carolina on April 4, 2016 will go down as one of the greatest finals in sporting history.

It just would’ve been nice to see Carolina come out on top.

 

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