Chapel Fowler- UNC-Chapel Hill

The sharp sound interrupted Cameron Johnson, as he sat in front of his locker in a half-buttoned white dress shirt and tried to rationalize what just happened to his North Carolina basketball team.

“So, what did Coach Williams say to you all at halftime?” one reporter asked.

“Oh, he was fired up,” Johnson replied, before a small black can of AXE spray deodorant fell from above him, bounced near his feet and cut him off mid-sentence.

Johnson looked up and saw Sterling Manley, his 6-foot-11 freshman teammate. Manley bent down to pick up what he’d dropped. He grabbed his spray bottle off the gray carpet, fumbled it again, finally retrieved it. It was a prime opportunity for Manley, an energetic and amiable player who has shouted out his barber in interviews, to crack a joke.

But Manley didn’t say a thing. He raised the dry spray under each armpit — Tsst. Tsst. — and continued to dress in silence.

This was the scene in North Carolina’s locker room on March 18, 2018, after an 86-65 beatdown at the hands of Texas A&M. A team looking for its third straight Final Four appearance, and second straight national championship, vanquished in the round of 32 by a seven seed.

Three days earlier, Tar Heel guard Andrew Platek gushed about how watching the 2016 NCAA title game was the deciding factor in him coming to Chapel Hill. In a game UNC lost on a buzzer beater to Villanova, he saw raw emotion like he’d never seen before. He saw the power of college basketball. Win or lose, he wanted to feel that.

Now he sat alone: eyes wide, hands clasped, head down, silent. In a cushy leather chair designed for comfort, he was feeling everything except for that. Next to him, senior walk-on Aaron Rohlman openly sobbed. Freshman Brandon Huffman carefully laid his white No. 42 jersey on the floor, straightened out the wrinkles and took a picture of it with his iPhone. He wouldn’t wear it in a game for another seven months.

Whether they wanted to admit it or not, this game was one the second-seeded Tar Heels expected to win. It turned into a game they wholeheartedly deserved to lose.

Ever since the day UNC’s freshman forward Tony Bradley entered the 2017 NBA Draft, critics zoned in on the Tar Heels’ lack of big men. No more Bradley or Isaiah Hicks or Kennedy Meeks — three bigs who played a crucial role on the 2017 title team. And nobody to replace them, either.

So, under the tutelage of its Hall of Fame head coach Roy Williams, North Carolina hid its weakness. Hid it behind Luke Maye, the 6-foot-8 stretch forward who boosted his scoring average from 5.5 to 16.9 points per game. Hid it behind a midseason change to a smaller lineup, which turned a 1-2 ACC start into one conference win streak of four and another of six. Hid it by shooting, and making, the most threes by any UNC team ever.

But against the underdog Aggies, and in front of a friendly home crowd in Charlotte, UNC could hide it no more.

Texas A&M went to its big men early and often. Center Tyler Davis caught entry pass after entry pass, and made one slick move after another. In a span of three minutes, he drew fouls on three different UNC defenders.

After the 11:37 mark of the first half, Texas A&M went on an unrelenting 29-8 run spurred by Davis and his frontcourt teammate Robert Williams.

The game was over minutes into the second half, as a 14-point halftime lead for Texas A&M ballooned to 24. The Tar Heels took every kind of 3-pointer a coach warns his players not to take: the deep ones, the contested ones, the ones shot far too early into the shot clock. North Carolina ended up going 6 of 31 from downtown, and was 1 of 18 at one point.

When UNC’s Theo Pinson drove to the rim with around six minutes left, one Aggie defender was there to block his shot cleanly; another to chuck a one-handed outlet pass to Williams, who stood alone near UNC’s free throw line.

As the ball whistled toward the 6-foot-10 sophomore, he wore a smile so wide you could see it from the media seating 34 rows back. He took one dribble and elevated for a vicious windmill dunk that punctuated UNC’s first NCAA Tournament loss in Charlotte in 13 games.

The contest had devolved into an uneven pickup game long before then, and that’s the way it stayed until the end. Rushed shots on one end, fast breaks and easy layups on the other. When the final buzzer sounded, seniors Pinson and Joel Berry II led a solemn trudge off the court and into the tunnels.

In a dismal press conference, the two seniors reminisced about their careers two weeks earlier than they wanted to. There would be no repeat. Instead, there was Berry thanking his parents, and Pinson ensuring that his four-year reign as the biggest personality on the team was real, not an act.
Williams spoke, too. The coach called Berry and Pinson his salvation, and apologized for not wiping away his tears. Just a few seconds earlier, he had dropped his handkerchief in an unsuccessful attempt to dry his eyes for a first time.

Then, the three of them were ushered out for one last long walk down a narrow Spectrum Center hallway. They’d eventually join the rest of the team for a 2.5-hour bus ride back to Chapel Hill that would feel much, much longer.

The showers hissed a little louder in those final minutes in UNC’s silent locker room. Duffle bag zippers and belt buckle jingles replaced the usual sounds of 16 victorious players. This was no victory, even in the slightest. No silver linings; no next game mentality.

For North Carolina, this was a defeat, through and through. And its sting wasn’t going away any time soon.