NEW ORLEANS — It turned out North Carolina had a little left in the tank after all.
After beating Duke on Saturday in a knock-down, drag-out national semifinal, the Tar Heels couldn’t possibly have had anything left for Monday’s national championship game against Kansas — at least that was the standard narrative in New Orleans.
When the Jayhawks scored the first seven points of the game against a UNC team that hadn’t trailed by more than eight in the tournament, it appeared that the narrative was accurate.
As they’ve done throughout their wild run through the NCAA Tournament, however, the Tar Heels took their opponent’s best shot squarely on the chin, then rallied.
Carolina erased the early Kansas lead and built a 15-point edge of its own at halftime. UNC saw that lead wiped out in the first few minutes of the second half, but again took the hit from Kansas and stood its ground.
In the end, Caleb Love’s 3-point shot at the buzzer was off the mark and the magic ran out for the Tar Heels as Kansas won the national championship, 72-69.
The Tar Heels entered the game with big man Armando Bacot limping on an ankle he sprained late in Saturday’s win over Duke. He was forced to go back to the locker room in pregame for additional treatment after attempting to shoot in warmups.
“In the last 24 hours, probably 15 of them were me just trying to get my ankle better,” Bacot said. “Right before the game, I really couldn’t even jump. I went back and (the training staff) just kept trying to take a crack at it. They wouldn’t give up.”
Clearly, the Tar Heels medical staff was taking the lead from the UNC players.
On one leg, Bacot produced a double-double at halftime and had 15 points and 15 rebounds when the ankle finally gave out in the final minute.
Bacot collapsed to the ground in pain as he tried to make a move toward the basket to give UNC the lead.
“I was just trying to drive to the basket,” he said. “Unconsciously, I went up off my right foot, and it just folded again. … I made a good move. I had a great angle. I thought I had the basket.”
By that point, Caleb Love, another hero of the Duke win, was also hobbling on an ankle injury of his own.
“I was running down and I twisted my ankle twice,” he said.
Puff Johnson, who came off the bench when Leaky Black got into foul trouble, scored 11 points and appeared ready to be the breakout star of the title game until he crumpled to the floor and began vomiting late in the game and had to leave the floor as well.
“I got hit in the stomach and it just didn’t go well,” Johnson explained.
Still, the Tar Heels kept coming.
As Kansas rushed down the court following Bacot’s failed drive, the big man pulled himself to his feet and hopped after them before the officials finally stopped play with 38 seconds remaining.
“I was just trying to get back,” Bacot said, “and do whatever I could. I really struggled. I couldn’t put any weight on my right leg. Right then and there, I probably knew I was done at that point.
“The whole game, I couldn’t get push on anything,” he added. “I was just out there. It was hard for me to stand my ground.”
And yet, the Tar Heels seemed to do just that, standing their ground any time things got tough.
Carolina withstood a 20-3 Kansas run in the second half and led as late as the 1:41 mark of the second half.
A pair of David McCormack layups and a missed Carolina 3-pointer appeared to seal the deal with 4.3 seconds remaining. Kansas needed to inbound and hit a free throw after the inevitable UNC foul to clinch the national title. Instead, a UNC team that has lived by the miracle had one more comeback in it — almost.
Kansas tried to run a long pass play to run off the remaining seconds, but DaJuan Harris stepped out of bounds, giving the Tar Heels the ball and one last attempt at a game-tying 3.
It was only after Love’s shot missed and the red light over the basket lit up that the relentless Tar Heels were finished.
“I got the ball, took the shot and came up short,” Love said.
Only on the scoreboard, however, were the Tar Heels lacking during their March and early April run.
“I can’t remember another time in my life where I should be disappointed, but I’m just filled with so much pride,” said coach Hubert Davis.