Roy Williams couldn’t help but cry.
Joel Berry and Theo Pinson mean that much to the North Carolina coach and the trio has been through so much together for four years — an eternity in modern college basketball.
“I didn’t picture it ending like this,” Williams said.
Nobody ever does.
Sixty-seven teams are guaranteed from the start to not be happy in the end. Yet, March is still a thief. The exit always as swift as it is sudden.
Texas A&M knocked the second-seeded Tar Heels out in the second round with a complete 86-65 win. It was an incongruous ending to incredible careers for Berry and Pinson, which featured 118 wins, back-to-back trips to the Final Four, the national title in 2017, the ACC title in 2016 and regular-season ACC crowns in 2016 and ’17.
Pinson, forever the optimist, gathered his thoughts while Williams, seated to his right in the post-game press conference, wiped the tears from his eyes.
“Probably the main reason I’m not crying right now is because I’ve enjoyed every single moment I had with Coach, Joel and all my teammates in the past, teammates in the locker room right now.”
Pinson, who finished with four points, seven rebounds and 11 assists, and Berry, who had a team-high 21 points, got one last ovation from the UNC fans in Charlotte with 1:29 left.
Down 85-63, Williams subbed out the senior duo. One UNC fan, seated behind the scorers’ table, stood up in an otherwise quiet moment and shouted: “Thank you, Theo! Thank you, Joel!”
A standing ovation from the UNC fans at the Spectrum Center followed, as did hugs from Williams and each of the assistant coaches.
Williams was emotional in the press conference because it was about more than the loss or even all of the wins with Berry and Pinson. There was also the NCAA scandal, which all three lived through.
Williams took off his glasses and wiped away the tears. His eyes were red, his heart full.
“Three of the last four years have been very difficult and those kids were my salvation,” Williams said.
“I don’t want to be too dramatic, but that was hard for a long time there, and those kids really, really made my day every day. I’ve been the luckiest man alive because I had kids that made me feel like what I said was halfway important.”
With the NCAA case, into UNC’s long-running academic scandal, closed in October, and without any punishment from the NCAA, this season was about basketball.
Berry and Pinson were the complementary personalities to the team. They had the bad cop (Berry), good cop (Pinson) routine down pat. Berry, a bulldog of a competitor, willed the short-handed Tar Heels through long stretches of ACC play.
It was when Pinson, an unconventional point forward, got into a groove the last six weeks of the season that UNC played its best basketball. Pinson, more than anyone, convinced Williams to play an unconventional style.
But Williams saw something in Texas A&M’s gigantic lineup that worried him before Sunday and came to fruition in the first half. UNC had no answer for mammoth forward Tyler Davis (18 points) and the tenor of the game was determined in the first half when UNC couldn’t stop Davis.
The run so many UNC teams have made so many times never came in the second half. The Aggies, with a 50-36 advantage on the glass and 30-18 advantage from the 3-point line, won going away.
It was one of those games where UNC had wished big man Tony Bradley was still in college.
It was also about all Berry and Pinson could do. After a 5-5 ACC start, it was more than expected. With a No. 2 seed in a favorable bracket, it wasn’t as far as they would have liked to have gone or had the previous two years.
“I pictured it ending with these guys having a huge smile on their face,” Williams said. “But that’s not college basketball.”
Only one team gets to smile at the end.