In a year full of captivating storylines in college basketball, North Carolina’s victory in the National Championship last Monday against No. 1 seed Gonzaga reigned supreme. While any National Championship win is impressive, the fact that it came a year after heartbreak made the victory sweeter for the Tar Heels.
Just 364 days before North Carolina (33-7, 14-4 ACC) cut down the nets, it fell victim to one of the most improbable shots in NCAA Tournament history. After Marcus Paige hit an amazing double-clutch three-pointer to drag the Heels back to a 74-74 tie with the Wildcats from a 10-point deficit with under five minutes left, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins nailed a shot from five feet behind the arc to clinch Villanova’s first championship since 1985.
The shot shocked UNC, which looked poised to take control of the game had it gone to overtime. However, despite the shot becoming one of the most replayed video clips of all time, UNC’s loss motivated it to come back stronger. As a matter of fact, junior forward Justin Jackson took it upon himself to name this year’s player-only group chat “Redemption,” a word that popped up on every player’s phone every day, from the start of summer workouts all the way up to the end of the season. It is what kept North Carolina focused and ready for the team’s next opportunity to redeem itself.
However, redemption was not a formality for the Tar Heels. Throughout the entire year, they have faced numerous obstacles that could have prematurely ended their quest. In addition to losing the ACC Semifinals to rival Duke (28-9, 11-7 ACC), the NCAA Tournament was especially stressful for the Heels.
North Carolina blew a 20-point lead to Arkansas (26-10, 12-6 SEC) and required a late-game comeback to escape the round of 32, needed a game-winning shot from walk-on freshman forward Luke Maye to beat Kentucky (32-6, 16-2 SEC) in the Elite 8 and had to grab consecutive offensive rebounds after missed free throws to beat Oregon (33-6, 16-2 Pac-12) in the Final Four.
The Heels overcame all of this drama to become just the fourth team to come back from losing the National Championship the year before to win it the following year, exorcising their demons from the past year and replacing them with joy, euphoria and a new group chat name: “Redeemed.”