CHAPEL HILL – Nothing went easily for North Carolina all season.
The Tar Heels never had top player P.J. Hairston due to NCAA violations and started 0-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, yet they also beat the top four teams from the preseason Top 25 and had a 12-game winning streak to return to the NCAA Tournament.
Considering all those wild swings, maybe it was fitting then for their season to end with a strange finish.
“This team, we’ve been through so much on the court, off the court,” sophomore Marcus Paige said after Sunday’s loss to Iowa State in San Antonio. “Personnel losses, criticism from our fans, people doubting us. The way we fought all year and exceeded most people’s expectations is a bright spot. But for it to end the way it did is really, really hard to swallow.”
The sixth-seeded Tar Heels (24-10) fell, 85-83, in the third round on DeAndre Kane’s layup with 1.6 seconds remaining. In the ensuing chaos, the clock operator didn’t start the clock when UNC inbounded the ball, leading to confusion that had freshman Nate Britt racing to midcourt to call timeout.
Officials determined that the final 1.6 seconds should have expired, preventing the Tar Heels from even hoisting a shot to extend their season.
It marked the first time they have failed to survive the tournament’s opening weekend in consecutive seasons since Roy Williams took over in 2003-04.
“People had written us off at the beginning of the season,” freshman forward Kennedy Meeks said. “We worked hard throughout the season trying to get back on top, just trying to keep grinding it out. It just something we have to look forward to next year to motivate us.”
The Tar Heels can at least hope for a quieter offseason.
The Hairston saga hung over the program for months after UNC’s leading scorer was cited by authorities in May and June while driving rental cars linked to a felon and party promoter in Durham. He sat out while the school and NCAA worked to resolve eligibility questions, then the school announced in December that it wouldn’t seek his reinstatement due to numerous violations.
In addition, fifth-year senior Leslie McDonald missed the first nine games due to related NCAA issues, leaving the Tar Heels’ thin backcourt in a state of flux.
But Paige developed into an all-ACC performer with a habit for coming up big after halftime. He helped drive the Tar Heels to early wins against reigning NCAA champion Louisville, Kentucky and even at then-No. 1 Michigan State, though they lost at home to Belmont and at UAB in the season’s opening weeks.
He also guided the Tar Heels to a 12-game ACC winning streak, including a weather-delayed rivalry win against Duke.
The Tar Heels saw significant improvement from sophomore J.P. Tokoto, a high-flyer who improved his jumper and became the team’s top defender. Meeks is still working on his conditioning after shedding 30 pounds and provided rebounding, while sophomore Brice Johnson displayed an improved scoring touch in the paint.
It’s unclear whether James Michael McAdoo will return for his senior season. The 6-foot-9 forward, who averaged 14.2 points and 6.8 rebounds, was a potential high first-round NBA draft pick after his freshman year but has twice opted to return to school.
The Tar Heels will add the nation’s No. 3 recruiting class according to Rivals.com, featuring small forwards Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson, and point guard Joel Berry.
“I loved my team,” Williams said. “We had some adversity. We had some trouble. We had some turmoil. We had all this stuff. Every day when I went to practice I felt like I was released. It was so much fun. ... They were really a great group to coach.”