Reggie Bullock was putting on a brave face, fielding questions just outside North Carolina’s locker room, when he heard the echoes reverberate from just around the corner.
Hairston nailed six three-pointers in the loss to Miami on Sunday.
It was the sound of the Miami Hurricanes, fresh off cutting down the Greensboro Coliseum nets, excitedly rushing into their respective locker room. Miami had just edged the Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament championship, 87-77, in a game that was far closer than the final score would indicate.
For 35 minutes, UNC played even with Miami in what was, perhaps, the best performance of the Tar Heels’ season and the most entertaining game of the year for the ACC. In the end, Shane Larkin and the Hurricanes proved too much, ending the game on a 25-12 run to seize UNC’s championship hopes.
Despite taking the loss, the game proved that UNC – the same team that lost by 26 points to Miami earlier in the year – was able to compete with one of the best teams in the nation.
P.J. Hairston continued to put on a show for his hometown Greensboro crowd, as he drained six 3-pointers and tallied 28 points when it was all said and done. Freshman point guard Marcus Paige reached the pinnacle of his year-long development, scoring 17 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
Across the board, the Tar Heels weren’t the upset-minded try-hards that they were labeled just a month ago. They were a team who deserved to be playing for a conference championship and who belonged in a contest with No. 9 Miami.
In fact, it was when Bullock was discussing the positives UNC could take out of the game when the cheers started to creep through the doorway.
“I feel like we can continue our positive momentum. We definitely take a lot of confidence from this game,” Bullock began. “It was a great battle. P.J. was hitting shots left and right. I was just trying to do anything to hit shots and be unselfish, but you know, you know –”
That’s when Bullock couldn’t contain himself any longer.
“…hearing celebrations like that, it just makes me burn inside. But, I’m going to take this burning feeling to the NCAA Tournament and try to give it my all.”
Paige added 17 points and continues to show great improvement since his first game as a Tar Heel.
Bullock hurried through two more answers and surged through the door, into the UNC locker room where the rest of the Tar Heels sunk in their chairs and packed their bags without a peep or glance away from the floor.
That scene wasn’t the way coach Roy Williams wanted his team to remember Greensboro, where the Tar Heels knocked off Florida State and Maryland to earn the chance to play for a title. UNC battled the Hurricanes until the final buzzer, and it finally played a brand of basketball that satisfied Williams, regardless of the loss.
“Guys, I got no problem with my team,” Williams said. “I got nothing to complain about with my team today. I’m really proud of my team. I’m not talking about the entire year, I’m talking about today. I’m unbelievably proud of my team and the way they played today.”
More than just the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels didn’t receive the reward Williams felt his team earned. UNC maybe improved throughout the past month more than any other team he’s ever coached.
The Tar Heels were confident as they stormed through the tournament weekend, and that confidence put them right on the cusp of an ACC title. UNC played with passion, intensity and moxie – all qualities that were notably nonexistent throughout the first troublesome months of the season.
“Ninety percent of the people in this room abandoned ship – 95 percent of our fans did,” Williams said. “Nobody knows how hard these kids have worked, and you get right here, and you would like them to be rewarded even more.”
UNC hit an emotional low when the confetti cannons rolled onto the Coliseum court and showered Miami, the ACC champions. Bullock’s emotional low came when the sound of the Hurricanes’ cheers cut his interview short.
It’s the type of low that hurts; it stings. But, it’s the type of low that means you’re alive, that you had something to fight for, that you’re no longer a team expected to be blown out in big games.
Moreover, it’s the type of low that’s overcome quickly. The Tar Heels left Greensboro with their heads down and hearts heavy. That feeling won’t – or, at least, shouldn’t – last long. The loss was a minor setback in an otherwise monumental, season-long comeback.
And, considering the way UNC took Miami, a No. 1 seed, down to the wire, the Tar Heels are hitting their peak just in time for the NCAA Tournament.
“We got tougher and grew up. We are a young team, but, at the same time, we’ve grown up to where we don’t let teams jump on us early; we fight back,” Hairston said. “We’re still playing, that’s what’s good. We want to take this game and take it to the next level and change our mistakes and try to get more intensity and more confidence.”
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