North Carolina’s Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II discuss being back to the NCAA Final Four and trying to win it all, in the locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium on March 30, 2017. (David Wallace/azcentral sports)
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Oregon’s Dillon Brooks, Dylan Ennis and Casey Benson, discuss counting their blessings, meeting Kobe Bryant and playing a Final Four in their home state, respectively, in the locker room on March 30, 2017. (David Wallace/azcentral sports)
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Gonzaga’s Przemek Karnowski, Jordan Mathews and Nigel Williams-Goss talk about rising to the moment of the NCAA Final Four in the locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium on March 30, 2017. (David Wallace/azcentral sports)
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South Carolina’s PJ Dozier and Duane Notice talk about their confidence and under dog status for the NCAA Final Four in the locker room at University of Phoenix Stadium on March 30, 2017. (David Wallace/azcentral sports)
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Downtown Phoenix gets ready to host the NCAA Final Four Fan Fest and house the teams as they play in nearby Glendale for the NCAA Final Four games. David Wallace/azcentral.com
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Luke Maye connected on a last-second jump shot to defeat the Kentucky Wildcats and send North Carolina to the Final Four.
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USA TODAY Sports’ Nicole Auerbach goes behind the scenes of South Carolina’s win over Florida, which sends the Gamecocks to their first Final Four.
USA TODAY Sports
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The Oregon Ducks have reached the Final Four for the first time since 1939 after a 74-60 win over the Kansas Jayhawks in the Elite Eight.
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USA TODAY Sports’ Dan Wolken breaks down Gonzaga’s Elite Eight victory over Xavier.
USA TODAY Sports
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The court for the NCAA Final Four tournament is put together at the University of Phoenix stadium in Glendale, Arizona. Thomas Hawthorne/azcentral
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azcentral’s Paola Boivin breaks down Arizona’s loss to Xavier in the Sweet 16. Video: Michael Chow/azcentral.com
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The Arizona Wildcats, who many had in the Final Four, are bounced from the NCAA Tournament. Plus, the Oakland Raiders may soon be the Las Vegas Raiders. Will that actually happen? Video: azcentral sports
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USA TODAY Sports’ George Schroeder looks at how the Jayhawks and Ducks prevailed to set up their upcoming matchup in the Midwest region of the NCAA tournament.
USA TODAY Sports
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ULCA head coach Steve Alford acknowledges the game against the two ‘bluebloods’ of NCAA basketball with the most championships between them.
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Considered all but done after losing their star point guard and dropping six straight games in February, Xavier has improbably made a run to the Elite Eight after defeating No. 2 Arizona in the Sweet Sixteen.
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Arizona Wildcats head coach Sean Miller is the third highest-paid head coach in the NCAA Tournament and can earn close to $1 million in bonuses for winning the national title.
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Take a look at some at the faces of celebration and dejection from the tourney.
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The massive scoreboard known as “Colussus TV” is installed at University of Phoenix Stadium for the upcoming NCAA Final Four games. David Wallace/azentral.com
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Being on network TV means this years NCAA tourney should easily overtake last year’s viewership. Richard Deitsch explains how to watch the Madness.
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North Carolina on being back to the NCAA Final Four
Oregon on counting their blessings
Gonzaga on rising to the moment
South Carolina on their confidence and underdog status
Downtown Phoenix gets ready for NCAA Final Four
North Carolina headed to Final Four with win over Kentucky
South Carolina makes history with Final Four berth
Oregon advances to first Final Four since 1939 with win over Kansas
Gonzaga advances to program’s first Final Four
Piece by piece, the court for the NCAA Final Four tournament is put together in Glendale
Paola Boivin recaps Arizona’s loss to Xavier
Shot Clock: Arizona knocked out; Raiders moving to Vegas?
Kansas and Oregon set up intriguing Elite 8 matchup
UCLA’s Steve Alford talks about playing Kentucky
No. 11 Xavier upsets No. 2 Arizona to head to Elite Eight
A closer look at Sean Miller’s salary and bonuses
March Madness: Craziest faces of the NCAA tournament
Scoreboard installed at University of Phoenix Stadium for Final Four
Media circus: A guide to March Madness
The road to a championship is littered with collateral damage. Deranged Kentucky fans sent death threats to a referee following a loss in the Elite Eight. Arizona coach Sean Miller deactivated his Twitter account after an unexpected loss to Xavier. And by the time one lucky team cuts down the nets in Glendale, there will be far more broken hearts than shining moments.
North Carolina knows better than anyone.
The Tar Heels aren’t looking for sympathy in the Valley. They arrive at the 2017 Final Four as the only blue-blood program left in the tournament. They don’t wear glass slippers and they won’t be sentimental favorites. They have been the subject of an academic fraud investigation that’s been going on for years.
But they are in search of redemption, looking to erase one of the most painful defeats in school history. They lost to Villanova on a buzzer-beater in the 2016 title game, immediately after one of their own players (Marcus Paige) made an incredible shot to tie the game. It was one of the most thrilling finishes in NCAA Tournament history, unless you were wearing Carolina Blue.
“In the locker room (after) was the most inadequate feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. “And it’s hard. It’s hard to think about. It’s hard to talk about. Because my kids gave me everything they had. The other team made a big-time play.”
Villanova’s triumph over North Carolina started an amazing run of championship performances in American sports. The Cubs rallied from a 3-1 deficit to win the World Series. Clemson upset Alabama with an amazing fourth-quarter performance in the College Football Playoff. The Patriots rallied from a 28-3 deficit to win the first overtime game in Super Bowl history.
Casual fans felt blessed. The winners felt unparalleled euphoria. But what about the losers, namely those long-suffering Indians fans and the football fans in Atlanta who are still traumatized by the Falcons’ epic collapse?
North Carolina can provide the blueprint for recovery, providing inspiration to those on the downside of a historic period in sports.
“What I did try to tell them was let’s focus on using this feeling as fuel, as motivation, to work extremely hard in the offseason,” Williams said. “And that’s really what I used it for.”
The mission hasn’t started well. During his team’s first practice in Glendale, Williams busted open his lip after getting hit in the face by a basketball, going down so hard that “you would have thought Muhammad Ali hit me.”
Losses seem to hit Williams harder than most. He is folksy, self-deprecating and full of Southern charm. His emotions are always on full display and his mood can change dramatically, depending on the question. He dad-gums his way through press conference just like former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. He can also be tone-deaf, bemoaning how the academic scandal has hampered his recruiting, allowing rival schools to lure kids away from Chapel Hill.
He survived a serious health scare. When tumors were discovered on his kidneys in 2012, doctors told him there was a 95 percent chance they were malignant. For 24 days, he thought he had cancer, leading to one of his favorite anecdotes:
Williams has always said the best way for him to pass would be after carding a birdie on the 18th hole. Days before surgery, he smoked a drive on the final hole and hit his approach shot within a few feet of the cup. He worried that his final wish was about to come true, and promptly pushed the putt to the right.
Soon thereafter, doctors told him the tumors were benign.
Williams, 66, is also a great basketball coach. He instructs his team to never call a timeout in a tie game if there’s at least six seconds remaining, a strategy that caught Kentucky coach John Calipari off-guard in their Elite Eight showdown. Calipari wanted to call timeout and regroup after his team tied the game, but North Carolina was too quick getting the ball in bounds, leading to a game-winning shot from Luke Maye.
RELATED: Complete Final Four Arizona coverage
Maye also did the program a big favor by showing up to his business class at 8 a.m. the following morning, where he received a standing ovation from fellow students, thus proving that North Carolina players actually care about academics.
“No question, therapeutic is probably the best word,” Williams said of his team’s on-court success the past two seasons. “We’ve had some junk swirling around that I haven’t enjoyed or appreciated or felt good about things that were being said. But I could lose myself when I went out on the court with those guys … they’ve really made me feel good about what I’m doing. And they’ve allowed me to get away from the stuff.”
Teams that suffer horrible defeats can have a hard time recovering, but Williams found a way to lead his Tar Heels back to the Final Four. They will never forget the night that Kris Jenkins and Villanova broke their hearts, a game so thrilling that it made Charles Barkley jump up and down with excitement.
But if they find themselves climbing ladders with scissors, they will be Tar Healed. They might even set the stage for a year of redemption in American sports.
Reach Bickley at [email protected] or 602-444-8253. Follow him on twitter.com/dan.bickley. Listen to “Bickley and Marotta” weekdays from 12-2 p.m. on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM.