Eight days have passed since North Carolina’s 77-74 defeat against Villanova in the national championship game last Monday night, and Williams hasn’t quite found a way to put the defeat behind him. He’s not sure he’ll ever be over it.
“You can ask me the day before I die,” Williams, the Tar Heels coach, said on Tuesday when asked how he’d recovered since last Monday. “I’m sure that I won’t be recovered then either. That’s very dramatic, that kind of thing.
“But I don’t think you ever get over it. I really don’t. Last week I was recruiting and one day I was in Pennsylvania, and people were saying that’s the greatest championship game ever. And I said no, I thought 2005 and 2009 was a lot better.”
UNC won the national championship those years. The Tar Heels on Monday night, meanwhile, were left with one of the most heatbreaking defeats in NCAA Tournament history.
They trailed by 10 points with about five minutes remaining only to tie the game at 74 on Marcus Paige’s off-balance, double-clutching 3-pointer with 4.7 seconds to play. And then Villanova won the game, and the national championship, on Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer as time expired.
When asked on Tuesday how he’d been handling the defeat, Williams began his answer with that line: “You can ask me the day before I die.” And then he spoke for about seven minutes straight.
Williams spoke about the contrast in emotions, going from the high of Paige’s shot to the finality of the one Jenkins made: “I never really got that high,” Williams said, “because I knew we still had to defend. But the low is, that’s about as low as you can be.”
In some ways the moment reminded Williams of what he experienced in 2003 when he was coaching at Kansas. The Jayhawks ended that season with a defeat against Syracuse in the national championship game.
Kansas in that game rallied from an 18-point deficit and trailed by three late. The Jayhawks had two chances to tie the game in the final seconds but couldn’t. But this loss — the Tar Heels’ defeat against Villanova — was “even more difficult,” Williams said.
He tried to offer perspective about Paige’s shot, the one he made with 4.7 seconds remaining. It came from just right of the top of the key. Paige jumped amid two defenders and was off-balance when he released the shot. Even the release itself, on a double-clutch, came with a high degree of difficulty.
“We were just talking,” Williams said on Tuesday. “That might have even surpassed Michael (Jordan) or at least it was in the ballpark as the greatest shot in North Carolina basketball history.”
It was high praise. Jordan’s jump shot in the final seconds of the 1982 national championship game provided UNC with the winning points against Georgetown. In some ways it launched Jordan’s ascent. He became a household name then and eventually became the player many believe to be the best ever.
Paige’s shot, meanwhile, was upstaged by what came almost immediately after — the one that Jenkins made as time expired. Jenkins made the shot after he threw the inbounds pass to Ryan Arcidiacono, the Villanova point guard. Jenkins trailed Arcidiacono while he crossed midcourt, and then Arcidiacono passed to Jenkins, who stepped up with an open look from the right wing.
Williams knew Jenkins’ shot was good as soon as he released it. Williams on Tuesday said that he didn’t even watch the shot go in. He knew. After the game he’d said he wished UNC would have better defended Jenkins but time — and some film review — has provided Williams with a different perspective.
That was part of the reason why Williams wanted to hold a press conference on Tuesday. He doesn’t always have one after seasons end but he wanted one after this season for a couple of reasons: for one, UNC played for the national championship. And, two, he wanted to absolve Isaiah Hicks, the junior forward, for his role on the final play of the game.
Hicks afterward took the blame for the defeat because he believed he should have been in better position to defend Jenkins on the final shot. Williams read some of Hicks’ comments afterward — ones in which Hicks said, according to Williams, that he “should’ve gotten up there” to guard Jenkins.
“We had a team meeting on Wednesday of last week,” Williams said. “And I didn’t jump on them, but I disagreed with Isaiah. He took way too much responsibility. That shot was against North Carolina’s team.
“We graded the film, we gave Isaiah two good (defensive grades) during that one possession. But yet I read these comments about I should’ve gotten up there, it was my guy. It was North Carolina’s team. But Isaiah, it was not his man. But he was willing to take that responsibility.”
Williams went on.
“If you watch it on tape, (Hicks) challenged it a lot better than I thought he did,” Williams said. “If you look at the still pictures, it’s not as good a challenge. But if you watch it on tape, he challenged it.”
At one point on Tuesday Williams put himself back in the huddle with his team last Monday night. There were 4.7 seconds remaining. Paige had just tied the national championship game with his 3-pointer.
In the stands at NRG Stadium, UNC fans were throwing their souvenir seat cushions in the air. In the huddle with his players, though, Williams said the celebration surrounding Paige’s shot “was over with.”
“I got down in the huddle and before I could even say anything, somebody said we just need one stop,” Williams said. “One stop. And they almost started yelling it at each other. And Marcus did say, we get a stop now, we’re going to win this game.
“So they were focused. But we just — give Villanova credit. Their first option wasn’t there, the second option wasn’t there. They went to the third option and the kid made a great shot.”
Brice Johnson, the UNC senior forward, was the defensive player assigned to Jenkins on the final play. Williams, though, elected to send Johnson deep, and to station him in the free throw lane. Williams remembered what Villanova had done against Kansas earlier in the NCAA tournament, when off an inbounds play Villanova beat Kansas with a long pass that led to a breakaway dunk.
“The last thing I said (was), ‘Everybody get involved,’ ” Williams said. “All five guys, get involved. So we went out there, and sure enough Brice’s guy was taking it out. … If it’s not a long pass, you’ve got to come up. We just didn’t get to Kris as closely as I would’ve wanted.
“And you know what? We may have played great defense and he still may have made the shot. As soon as he went up to shoot it, I knew it was going in. I watched his follow-through, and I never looked at the ball after that.”
Williams knew then that it was over. He was sure of it — as sure as he is now that the pain of that loss might linger as long as he lives.
The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.)—