North Carolina guard Joel Berry was with his team in Times Square in New York last week during the ACC Tournament when they saw a familiar image up on a giant video board.
Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono dribbles upcourt and shovel passes to teammate Kris Jenkins, who lifts up outside the 3-point arc with the final seconds of the 2016 national championship game ticking down. Over the outstretched left hand of North Carolina forward Isaiah Hicks, Jenkins releases an arcing shot that dives into the basket, banging in off the back rim as time expires. Confetti and streamers fill the air in Houston’s NRG Stadium. The Tar Heels walk off the court in disbelief, 77-74 losers in a most memorable championship.
“You can’t go anywhere without seeing that shot,” said Berry, who defended Arcidiacono up the court. “But I’m glad I see it because it motivates me, and I know it motivates my team as well.”
A play that likely will follow them long after their playing careers end, Villanova’s championship-winning shot has motivated the Tar Heels to write a new ending to their pursuit of this year’s national title. North Carolina, the top seed in the South region, begins NCAA Tournament play against Texas Southern on Friday in Greenville, S.C.
“It’s given us motivation, that’s for sure,” said ACC player of the year Justin Jackson, who was one of three Tar Heels on the floor for that shot who still are with the team. “We want to get back to that point and change the outcome. And we want to get back to that because we had so much fun during that run. We want to get back to that feeling and the way that we played, and if we can do that, that’s something big for us.”
North Carolina is a fierce machine, rated fourth nationally in offensive efficiency (KenPom), 25th in defensive efficiency and third overall. The Tar Heels won the ACC regular-season title at 14-4, an assembly of size, speed and playmaking ability.
“It just puts a fire up under me when I go out on the court,” Berry said. “It just gives me this extra little boost.”
The specter of Jenkins’ shot wasn’t enough to drive North Carolina to the ACC title. The Tar Heels gave away a 13-point second-half lead to Duke and lost 93-83 in a semifinal matchup. It revealed again that they’re not invincible. But coach Roy Williams was not distraught. After losing to Duke, Williams said he told the team that of his teams’ eight Final Four trips, six of them lost in the semifinals of their conference tournaments.
“There’s still a lot to play for,” Williams said. “I’m not trying to make anybody mad. Our final goal was not to win the ACC Tournament. Our final goal was to play on the last Monday night and win the game there.”
A particular priority for Williams is defending without fouling. In North Carolina’s seven losses, Tar Heels’ opponents took 6.6 more free throws per game, including an advantage of 19 free throws in Georgia Tech’s win on New Year’s Eve. Duke had the same margin in its ACC Tournament win.
“We just understand that, defensively, we have to be better,” forward Theo Pinson said.
Chances are, the Tar Heels haven’t seen Jenkins’ shot for the last time, particularly if they care to watch the NCAA Tournament this month.
“It’s driven me a lot,” Berry said. “We can blame (last year’s loss) on the shot and say that’s motivation, but just, honestly, I want to be able to reach the potential that this team can get to, and I know our sky is the limit, and we can go as far as we want to take us. If we continue to be better on the defensive end and just realize the little mistakes that we’re making, I think we’ll be good. But every day, that shot motivates me all the time.”
The Tar Heels are aware of it even when they don’t see it. A highlight montage that was played before home games this season included guard Marcus Paige’s double-pumping 3-pointer that tied the score at 74-74 with 4.7 seconds to play, a clutch basket that ultimately became the prelude to Jenkins’ game-winner.
Watching the Paige shot, “we still understand what happened right after that,” Pinson said last week at the ACC Tournament. “I know today, I was thinking like, I want to change that. We want to change that. Look, Marcus’ shot was incredible. We’re not going to try to downgrade it, but we have to have a picture up there where we’re holding a trophy.”