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Blue StreakThe Highs, Lows and Behind the Scenes Hijinks of a National Champion
By Dan Wiederer
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Dan Wiederer
All right reserved.
Chapter OneTHE END?
So what now?
It was the most obvious and most jarring question in the Alamodome locker room that Saturday night. The University of North Carolina Tar Heels had just trudged off college basketball's grandest stage, chins seemingly Krazy Glued to their chests, and had returned to a vast and sprawling locker room still not large enough to hold all the despair and frustration they had dragged back with them.
Gracious as the NCAA is, Carolina's 17 players plus the crestfallen coaching staff were given the obligatory cooling off period - 15 minutes among themselves to digest the stunning 84-66 pummeling they had just absorbed from Kansas.
Then, with one push on the locker room door, the blank stares and mumbles of despondency were put on display for a frenzied media horde to barge in and observe.
It's always crazy the way that works with season-ending losses. Chaos reigns as dozens and dozens of detail-hungry and deadline-crunched reporters scramble to collect those gruesome crime scene details from a bunch of college kids still too shaken to truly understand what happened.
So it was no surprise that when those Alamodome locker room doors opened, the scene inside was straight up depressing, the Tar Heels choked in disbelief and smothered in disappointment.
So what now?
Sophomore guard Wayne Ellington heard the question, bit his bottom lip and shook his head.
Junior Danny Green heard the question and stared straight down as if he were trying to burn a hole in the dark gray and blue carpet under his feet.
Point guard Ty Lawson heard the question and shrugged. Sure, the level of grief was obvious. But a combination of anger and bewilderment was mixed in.
"I don't know that anyone in here is sad," junior leader Marcus Ginyard said, trying to attach some form of context to it all. "I think everybody is just pissed off because we didn't play hard enough, smart enough or with enough energy. The frustration right now is far bigger than the sadness."
Suddenly, the future for these Tar Heels wasn't a championship Monday date with Memphis. Suddenly the future was the 2008-09 season.
What now? What now? What now?
The other pressing question in that gloomy moment came in at least a dozen different forms - some direct, some more sensitive to the heartbreak - and was delivered to just about every player important enough to attract a pack of reporters to his locker stall.
What the hell just happened?
It was impossible to figure. UNC's players had arrived in San Antonio with chests puffed and their confidence needling past full. A dream 200708 season had included 36 victories - more than any other Tar Heels team in history. And a season 100 percent certain to end near the energetic Riverwalk in San Antonio seemed like it was predestined to culminate with Carolina holding up one more trophy, clowning with Jim Nantz and Billy Packer, cutting down a pair of souvenir nets and reveling in college basketball's most goose bump-inducing highlight montage: "One Shining Moment."
Only that's not what happened at all.
The CliffsNotes version of Carolina's final game had barely an ounce of feel-good to it and about 8,466 pounds of regret.
In a historic Final Four - the first ever with all four of the NCAA Tournament's No. 1 seeds in attendance - the Tar Heels not only failed to seize their golden opportunity, they flat-out embarrassed themselves throughout an 11-minute stretch of the first half during which an early 9-6 deficit grew to 15-8, then 25-10, then 33-12.
When the tsunami ended, Kansas had sunk Carolina with its athleticism, efficiency and swagger. The Tar Heels suddenly found themselves facedown on the shore gasping for air, coughing up water and staring at a scoreboard that seemed to be taunting their atypical ineptitude: 40-12.
It was the score Carolina players would have thrown at them in some form or another for the next 12 months - 40-12, 40-12, 40-12.
As it so often goes with dream-crushing losses, the details of UNC's unraveling that night have been rehashed and rehashed and rehashed until they became so clear that they're actually somewhat blurry.
It started with Lawson, the speedy point guard who was expected to be the X-factor of the game, airballing his first shot. It continued with Kansas sensing the Heels' uncertainty and timidity and pouncing, like an opportunistic prize fighter who knows when his opponent has become little more than a speed bag.
Venture into the prestigious Carolina Basketball Museum and footage of that 2008 Kansas game, not surprisingly, is nowhere to be found.
UNC's Hall of Fame coach, Roy Williams, a detail-oriented perfectionist, never watched the tape.
Neither did National Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough.
"Why?" Hansbrough would reason months later. "I know what happened."
What happened was Kansas took the most prolific offense in the NCAA Tournament, Williams' NASCAR-style fast-break attack, and slapped a boot on both front tires. In the game's opening 15 minutes, UNC shot 4 for 21 and committed nine turnovers.
What happened was Jayhawks guard Brandon Rush attacked Ginyard like no opponent had all season. Suddenly, UNC's lockdown defender and the leading vote-getter by league coaches for the All-ACC defensive team, was little more than a traffic cone as Rush sliced and shot his way to 25 points.
What happened was Kansas, no slouch with 35 wins yet somehow attracting much less hype and praise than Carolina had, found a way to magnetize attention with a defensive effort that left its coach, Bill Self, in awe.
Self had peppered his players with one simple defensive slogan all week: four passes, one shot.
That was the goal - to force Carolina, on every possession, to make at least four passes and take only one shot.
By night's end, the Jayhawks had held the Tar Heels to 35.8 percent shooting while adding nine blocked shots and 10 steals. On 79 possessions, Carolina took multiple shots just eight times.
Overwhelmed by the defensive pressure and the ubiquitous pressure of the Final Four experience, Carolina committed 18 turnovers and posted just seven assists.
Lawson, the Tar Heels' gas pedal, finished with only two assists. He didn't make his first field goal until 17:47 remained and five of his nine points came in the game's final 96 seconds when the contest was way out of reach.
No wonder Self appeared as if he were almost blushing when he thought about the first-half surge that gave his team a 28-point lead over mighty Carolina.
"Best 15 minutes I've ever had anybody play," the Jayhawks coach said. "Because you're playing against the No. 1 (overall) seed in the NCAA Tournament - on the biggest stage."
As for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and how the players assessed their performance on the biggest stage?
"We were flat," Ellington said. "We were just out there, no intensity. I don't think we started a game like that all season. We weren't attacking the way we normally do."
Ginyard went even further.
"I never would have imagined this team coming out with such little effort, such little passion," he said. "You can look back on the whole season and find a number of games we didn't play with the energy and drive we needed to. But nothing was as bad as this.... We would come into our huddle and nobody would say anything. It would take 4 or 5 seconds before anyone would just speak up. There was just this blank look of 'What's going on right now?' It was weird."
Nearly six months after the disaster, Lawson and roommate Deon Thompson tried to give the game some run on their DVD player.
Just out of curiosity.
But they ended up just looking at each other in total bewilderment.
"It was unreal," Thompson said. "It was honestly like an out-of-body experience. It seemed like Kansas didn't miss a shot the entire first half. And then we saw so many plays from ourselves that were silly. Ty seemed hesitant to push the ball and attack the basket. Wayne was dribbling the ball off his feet. It was like we were all tripping all over ourselves. That wasn't the kind of basketball team we had been."
And so that's how a dream 2007-08 season ended. With an uncharacteristic and disastrous showing in a defining moment.
It was easy to understand then the misery that was palpable throughout that Alamodome locker room afterward.
Quentin Thomas, the lone scholarship senior on the team, stood in the back corner and accepted hugs of condolence from teammates, coaches and managers. For him, the "What now?" question was pretty simple. His college basketball career was over and all that was left to do was pack up the gym bag one last time, absorb the well-wishes and head on.
Thomas shed no tears in the locker room but showed an obvious sense of deflation.
Those same emotions, however, didn't seem to be overpowering Lawson, who in his usual nonchalant way seemed all too willing to file the loss in the "Oh, well" category. As if it were a January slipup at Virginia or something.
"It'll probably be a little hard to leave this locker room," he said. "But we played well. Everybody played hard. So I don't think there's really anything for us to hang our heads about."
Lawson's deportment was so blasé and so seemingly detached that on the walk back from the Tar Heels locker room to the massive Final Four media center, a pair of Carolina beat reporters looked at each another and squinted.
"That was pretty weird with Ty, right?" one wondered aloud. "He seemed a little too low key."
"Really weird," the other responded. "He did realize this was the Final Four, right?"
Unaffected was not an adjective that could be stamped on Hansbrough, he of the heart-and-soul-into every-performance routine.
For UNC's superstar, the loss was not only painful but disgusting. Hansbrough had dreamed of cutting down these nets and draping them over the half-dozen or so Player of the Year trophies he had already collected. Instead, he was now facing a flight change - an early charter back to Chapel Hill, back to reality and into an offseason where one question was suddenly on everyone's mind.
"Man, I'm not even going to talk about it because I haven't even thought about what's next," Hansbrough said in the minutes after the Final Four loss.
The fact of the matter is that few of the Tar Heels had any idea what was ahead. Of the eight players who had played significant minutes that night, only one was certain to be gone - Thomas had exhausted his eligibility.
But only two were certain to return - Ginyard and Deon Thompson.
Hansbrough, the National Player of the Year, was a certain first-round pick in the NBA Draft if he chose to take that path.
Lawson seemed to have similar value with his game-changing speed and playmaking ability.
Ellington, who had toyed with the idea of entering the NBA Draft after his freshman season, would no doubt give the option a harder look this time around as well.
Even sixth-man Danny Green, feeling the positive energy of a solid junior year, was privately considering a jump to the pros if any NBA team out there was interested enough to give him a shot.
As for forward Alex Stepheson, an up-and-down sophomore season during which his dad had become ill, had left him seriously considering a transfer back to California so he could be closer to home.
So what now?
On Sunday morning of Final Four weekend, the Tar Heels were without the final practice they had longed for. Instead, came that 3-hour flight back to Raleigh.
The flight home was, as you'd expect, quiet and a bit depressing. But it was the bus ride back from RDU International Airport that really seemed to spook the players. The Tar Heels, as rambunctious and silly a team as you'd find in America, struggled to sit still. The instinct was to act as they always had - which would have meant cracking jokes and making fun of each other. But somehow comedy didn't seem appropriate. It was like trying to tell bar jokes at a wake. No matter how funny things were, the laughter seemed improper.
"Guys just kind of looked at each other," guard Bobby Frasor said. "If you smiled or if you laughed, it just felt wrong."
It's no wonder. For an entire season, Carolina hadn't experienced the grief of a losing bus ride. Before the Kansas face-plant, the Tar Heels had posted a perfect 22-0 record in games played away from the Smith Center.
"None of us really knew what to say or how to interact," Green said.
Williams had an equally awkward experience ahead of him. When his players arrived back in Chapel Hill and began absorbing those first hollow feelings of failure and the nightmarish thoughts that they had let an entire campus down, Williams was still in San Antonio.
His son, Scott, had flown in from London for the Final Four weekend. And so the Tar Heels coach made the easy decision to spend the next two days with his family: his wife, Wanda; his daughter Kimberly; Scott plus his wife, Katie.
Williams had battled a stomach virus during the game against Kansas. But the discomfort from that was nothing compared with the stomach-turning thoughts that he had let his team down.
In the postgame press conference at the Alamodome, he had sat with glazed eyes and a basketball-sized lump in his throat.
"They hit us right between the eyes," Williams said of Kansas.
And as Hansbrough and Ellington offered their thoughts on the loss in a monastery whisper, Williams had to look away.
"I apologize if their answers were so quiet," he said. "But you have to understand, they invest a lot. And the hurt they have right now is a lot."
Williams had no shortage of pride in his players. Sure, he had been stunned at their lack of energy in the game's opening minutes as Kansas body-slammed them, put a knee to their throat and practically laughed in their faces as they built a 40-12 lead.
But the Tar Heels managed to cut the deficit to 17 points by halftime and later clawed within 58-53 when a Green three-point attempt with more than 8 minutes to play went halfway down and rimmed out.
Somehow, that was the end of the momentum swing.
"I guess it's a little like that tale about the little engine that spent so much (energy) trying to get up the hill, it didn't have anything left when it got to the top," Williams said.
Williams knew that feeling all too well. In 19 trips to the NCAA Tournament, in six Final Four appearances, he had been able to enjoy a national championship celebration just once.
And little did he know that his feelings of sadness at the end of the 2007-08 season would soon turn to frustration.
First, there was the irksome matter of the official North Carolina cheering section, the one in which family members and friends were to be sitting. And yet somehow during the national semifinals, a smattering of royal blue Jayhawks supporters was mixed in.
"Now how the hell could that happen?" Williams asked his players.
The aggravation only grew when critics of the Tar Heels - many heartbroken fans - skewered their Hall of Fame coach for his ineptitude under the brightest spotlight.
In a disastrous first half, with his team clearly playing with uncharacteristic anxiety, Williams had called but one timeout. That was a 30-second stoppage with 7:32 to play before halftime.
The score at the time: Kansas 38, UNC 12.
The fury of the fans only escalated that Monday night. Still in San Antonio, Williams attended the national title game at the Alamodome, sitting between his wife, Wanda, and assistant coach Joe Holladay in the seventh row behind the Kansas bench.
That wasn't much of a big deal. What caused the most uproar? On the way into the stadium Ryan Robertson, who played for Williams at Kansas from 1995-99, had come to say hello and, in the process, Robertson's buddy playfully slapped a Jayhawks sticker on the breast of Williams' black mock turtleneck.
The Tar Heels coach thought little of it and kept the sticker on. In 1993, after he and Kansas had been bounced from the Final Four by UNC and mentor Dean Smith, Williams had hung around to watch the Carolina-Michigan national title game. And he had sat in the Superdome stands waving Tar Heel blue pompons from time to time. No one had made much out of that.
But perhaps what Williams had forgotten was that that had come during the pre-Internet age, before every last smile or sniffle or speech a coach or player made wound up on some message board or blog, fair game to be dissected and criticized in excess detail.
Excerpted from Blue Streak by Dan Wiederer Copyright © 2010 by Dan Wiederer. Excerpted by permission.
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