North Carolina lost the national title game in heartbreaking fashion one year ago. After tying the game with less than five seconds remaining, Villanova snatched a potential title win away from the Tar Heels with Kris Jenkins’ breathtaking buzzer-beater. Just 356 days later, Roy Williams and North Carolina earned a Final Four berth, and a shot at re-writing their script. They did so by unleashing their own last-second shot. It was a poetic way for this moment to come.
Since walking off the court on April 4, 2016, every returning member of North Carolina’s basketball team has had one goal: redemption. The players have talked about it all season, mentioning how hard they’ve worked with the goal of fixing what went wrong last year. They even renamed the group chat that includes every player on the team to “redemption” just before preseason workouts began. On Sunday, the Heels took another step on the road to reaching their goal.
Luke Maye is the hero this time, hitting a shot to beat Kentucky with less than a second remaining in regulation. In an eerie coincidence, it followed Wildcats guard Malik Monk nailing an awkward, contested 3-pointer to tie the game with just 7.2 seconds left. Not unlike Marcus Paige’s improbable shot that tied last year’s championship game, it looked like this one was headed to overtime. But just like last year, the winning team brought the ball up quickly and found an open shooter who didn’t miss.
The Tar Heels will celebrate getting through the South Region and earning a trip to the Final Four, but expect it to be muted. Their 75-73 win over Kentucky was a great, back-and-forth showing that tested the veteran squad’s resolve the entire way. This is a battle-tested group that has one goal in mind: a national title. Anything less would be a disappointment for a team that has fought so hard after such a devastating loss. Yes, they got to the Final Four, but there’s still work to be done.
On Saturday in Glendale, North Carolina will have the chance to take the next step on its redemption tour. Facing a very good Oregon Ducks team will be a challenge. But the Tar Heels have faced bigger, tougher opponents, none more so than their own memories of the 2016 final. Now they have the chance to erase those forever and write a new chapter. One they hope will have a very different ending.