USA TODAY Sports’ Nancy Armour breaks down the wild Elite Eight match-up between North Carolina and Kentucky that sent the Tar Heels to the Final Four.
USA TODAY Sports
MEMPHIS — As if they needed any reminders, it was right there on their phones.
It’s what the North Carolina players — every one of them on the roster, stars and subs alike — dubbed their group chat. Whether it was their grueling workouts over the summer or the closing seconds of their nail-biter Sunday against Kentucky, the sight or thought of that word could always be counted on for a swift, motivating kick in the butt.
“There were some days we’d go in there and felt like we couldn’t throw it in the ocean,” Justin Jackson said. “We would always say, `There’s no success without struggle.’ ”
And there’s no redemption without heartbreak.
BOX SCORE: North Carolina 75, Kentucky 73
BUZZER-BEATER: Maye’s clutch shot sends North Carolina past Kentucky
Carolina had the national title in its hands last year until Kris Jenkins and Villanova snatched it away in the final seconds. It was an unbelievably cruel way to lose, and talking about it still leaves coach Roy Williams’ voice raw with emotion.
But he already had a national title — two, to be exact — and, so long as he keeps coaching, would probably have a chance at another. The same could not be said for his players.
“I still have never watched that game. Probably never will watch that game,” Williams said. “So I wanted them to get back because so many of these guys played in that game.
“But it’s not just redemption,” Williams added. “I’m really happy for this team and the work that they’ve put in, the toughness that they’ve shown. They’re just, wonderful kids.”
But maybe if the Tar Heels had won last year, they wouldn’t have had the confidence to overcome Arkansas in the second round. Maybe if they’d won last year, they wouldn’t have had the grit to withstand the ferocious runs of Kentucky in the second half.
After leading by as much as six in the second half, North Carolina found itself on the wrong side of the scoreline after Kentucky’s Isaac Humphries capped a 10-2 run with a jump shot that put the Wildcats ahead 64-59 with a little over five minutes to play.
“I said you have shown that you can do this,” Williams said. “They reacted admirably, to say the least.”
Theo Pinson, who missed the game against Kentucky in December, made a jumper to start a 12-0 run.
Malik Monk almost beat North Carolina single-handedly in December, dropping a record 47 points on the Tar Heels. He was almost the hero again, knocking down two big threes to tie the game at 73 with 7.2 seconds left. But Pinson spotted Luke Maye with room on the wing and fed him the ball.
Maye, who had his first career double-double in the Sweet 16, coolly knocked it down, setting off a raucous celebration on the Carolina bench and among the outnumbered Tar Heel fans.
Maye finished with a career-high 17 points. Jackson, the ACC player of the year, had 19 and Kennedy Meeks had 17 rebounds. Joel Berry II, who sprained his left ankle in the first half after tweaking his previously sprained right ankle in practice Saturday, shook it off to finish with 11 points, three assists and two steals.
As satisfying as it might be to avenge their earlier loss, this was just a stepping stone for the Tar Heels. They smiled broadly as they cut down the nets, but these are not the precious pieces of twine that they covet.
No, those would come eight days from now in Glendale, Ariz.
North Carolina faces Oregon on Saturday night in the semifinals, and the Tar Heels would seem to have a decided advantage. On the Ducks and everyone else, for that matter.
Oregon is returning to the Final Four for the first time since the first one, back in 1939, while Gonzaga and South Carolina are making their debuts. North Carolina, meanwhile, pretty much counts the Final Four as part of its schedule. This will be its 20th appearance, a record.
Only UCLA (11) and Kentucky (eight) have won more national titles than North Carolina’s five.
But as the Tar Heels learned the hard way last year, and got a reminder of Sunday, nothing is certain until the clock hits zero. It’s why they have spent the last 12 months working for a single purpose, focused on a single word.
Making the Final Four was a goal. But it’s not the goal. There is more work to be done.
There is a title to be won and redemption to be had.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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