What makes the stunning conclusion to Sunday's game so tough to accept is not only how close Carolina came to winning the game but how brilliantly the Tar Heels had played to put themselves in the driver's seat going into the final minutes. Tyler Hansbrough (again) had an extraordinary performance; Deon Thompson was superb off the bench; Reyshawn Terry chipped in with a very effective first half stint; and the entire team hit clutch free throws, including Brandan Wright. For almost forty minutes, Carolina looked every bit the part of a deserving Final Four team.
But at the end of the game, Georgetown was better, period. Better defensively, better in its halfcourt execution, better in shooting the ball with confidence. Georgetown made it difficult for the Tar Heels at the end of the game, and created a situation where someone in light blue needed to hit a jump shot if Carolina was going to preserve its lead. Yes, there's room to question some of the late game shot selection. Yet many of those late misses were decent if not necessarily great looks at the basket from the likes of Ellington, Lawson, and Terry, shots those players are fully capable of making.
History teaches that you can't win all the marbles without at some point hitting a contested or semi-contested jump shot in clutch situations (roll tape of Raymond Felton, Donald Williams, and Michael Jordan). Sunday evening, the clutch shot that might have put the Tar Heels over the top never fell. Meanwhile, Georgetown nailed a huge jumper of its own to force overtime, then produced the key defensive stops in the opening minutes of overtime to seal Carolina's fate.
The result? A loss for the ages for the Tar Heels, surely the toughest in the regional state since the 1987 loss to Syracuse in this same building, as well as the toughest yet suffered by Roy Williams as Carolina's head coach.
The disappointment Williams and the players feel is profound, and rightfully so; but it's worth observing that it's precisely because Carolina played so well and were so close that this one hurt so much. Carolina gave maximum effort, showed great toughness and poise in nailing free throw after free throw, dominated the boards, and was generally more aggressive inside, as reflected by the free throw totals. To be sure, Carolina also had its weaknesses exposed, particularly in defending dribble penetration. But, the overtime collapse aside, this was a performance to be proud of, one only lacking one more clutch shot to get the job done.
It also was a team to be proud of. This Carolina team improved dramatically over the month of March, especially in the cohesion and chemistry department. It was a team still in the process of getting better -- highly unusual for this time of year, but then this was a highly unusual collection of extraordinary talent and extraordinary youth. In the past few weeks, this team had changed from one that perplexed many fans to one that had become truly enjoyable to watch, on a variety of levels.
Unfortunately, that improvement did not culminate in a Final Four berth, but rather a lot of broken Tar Heel hearts.
The only consolation is the knowledge that the future holds more regional finals in store for North Carolina, Roy Williams, and very likely many of these same players.
Carolina basketball has never provided fans with much insulation against the eventually of heartbreak. What it does provide is an assurance that Carolina will be in the hunt more often than not, and that somewhere down the road Carolina fans will get to enjoy a much happier regional final.
But for now, it's not just understandable but appropriate for Tar Heel fans to be broken hearted, just as the players and coaches are. I sympathize entirely with the many glum Tar Heel faces I encountered on various pit stops on southbound I-95 last night, worn by everyone from ordinary fans to former lettermen. (I was amused to observe, however, how many folks in Tar Heel gear headed for either the milkshake or the frozen yogurt line.)
So let's go ahead and embrace the heartbreak, knowing that the risk of heartache is the price fans pay when their team plays for all the marbles, and let's do so together, knowing that disappointment shared is disappointment eased.
Thad Williamson is an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. He is the author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much To So Many and wrote regularly for Inside Carolina and uncbasketball.com from 1995 to 2005. For an archive of some of his best articles from that period, visit http://www.thadwilliamson.net/sportsarchive.html