GREENSBORO On the night before North Carolinas 87-77 loss against Miami on Sunday in the ACC tournament championship game, the Tar Heels gathered inside their hotel room and watched a replay of the game that changed their season.
On a screen in front of them it was Feb. 9 in Coral Gables, Fla., and the Hurricanes were embarrassing the Tar Heels all over again. A dunk there. A fast-break layup here. A wide-open 3-pointer. An alley-oop off the backboard. The Tar Heels watched and tried to feel what they felt then the anger and humiliation.
They were having fun against us, P.J. Hairston, UNCs sophomore guard, said of that game last month at Miami. So we wanted to come out (on Sunday) and play with the intensity that we havent played with against Miami, that Miami hadnt seen, and kind of surprise them.
Maybe the Tar Heels (24-10) did surprise the Hurricanes (27-6) on Sunday. Maybe not. Either way, for 35 minutes Hairston and his teammates were the Hurricanes equal every bit as impressive as the team that earlier this season handed Duke and UNC some of their worst defeats in memory.
It was the final five minutes, though, that doomed UNC at the Greensboro Coliseum. After 10 ties and 15 lead changes, Miami went ahead for good with six and a half minutes to play after Trey McKinney Jones made a 3-pointer.
At the time, it seemed another momentum swing in a game full of them. The lead changed hands on eight consecutive made shots in the first half and both teams answered the other again and again, usually with 3-pointers. Miami and UNC combined for a tournament-record 25 of them.
But then, UNC simply ran out of answers, and Miami gradually extended the lead in the final minutes to five points, and then to eight and then to 10. And then it was over an anticlimactic finish, perhaps, to a game that seemed destined for a memorable finish.
For UNC, it was a disappointing end in a season that has included more disappointing finishes than Williams cares for. But there were no harsh words from Williams, who has been his teams most relentless critic.
Ive got no problem with my team, Williams said, his voice soft with emotion. I got nothing to complain about with my team today. Im really proud of my team.
UNC gave one of its most listless performances of the season during that loss at Miami. On Sunday, though, the Tar Heels gave one of their most spirited.
Hairston, playing through the left hand injury he suffered Friday in the tournament quarterfinals, led UNC with 28 points, and his six 3-pointers tied UNCs ACC tournament record.
At one point in the first half, Hairston made 3s on three consecutive possessions. Asked if it was the most on hed ever felt, Hairston gave a simple answer.
Yeah, he said.
But he didnt make any 3s during the final 15 minutes, after Miami used a smaller lineup to better guard the Tar Heels on the perimeter.
They kind of face-guarded me for the rest of the game, and it did kind of slow me down, because they were getting through every screen, Hairston said. They were switching screens if their player got cracked.
UNCs late inability to create the kind of perimeter shots it had early on was one reason for its demise. Another was the failure to defend sophomore guard Shane Larkin, who led Miami with 28 points.
He made a 3-pointer to cut UNCs lead to one point with about seven minutes left, and he scored eight points in the final 2 minutes, 21 seconds.
You dont realize how quick he is, said UNC freshman point guard Marcus Paige, who finished with 17 points and five assists. Well, some of you think you realize how quick he is, but until youre out there defending him its just a different level of quickness.
Paiges performance is one of the reasons the Tar Heels, who made 13 of their 29 3-point attempts, still had a chance in the final minutes. And his runner in the lane cut Miamis lead to three with 3:37 left.
UNC came no closer, though, and walked off the court while confetti fell and music played and while Miami celebrated its first ACC championship. Before Sunday, the Hurricanes, who denied the Tar Heels their 18th tournament championship, had never reached the ACC tournament title game.
They accepted the trophy long after the great majority of the crowd, mostly adorned in light blue, had left the coliseum. Miami had already cut down one set of nets, after it clinched the ACC regular-season championship.
After we clinched the outright regular-season title at home, we talked about that like, Wasnt that the funnest thing youve ever done? said Miamis Julian Gamble, a Durham native who finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds. We wanted to go to Greensboro and do that again, and bring those same scissors, and were a little more experienced at cutting the nets down.
The Tar Heels left without what they came for, but they did leave with a sense of redemption. They played with the pain of that 26-point loss at Miami still on their minds, and played on Sunday far better than they might have weeks ago, or a month ago.
Williams afterward spoke of how 95 percent of UNC fans abandoned ship during the more difficult times. He left the Greensboro Coliseum somber, but proud.
I feel very lucky to be the coach of my team, he said.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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