GLENDALE, Ariz. — He had hoped, at the time, that he was about to embark on a six-game stretch that would end with a backwards cap on his head and a piece of a net stuck to his forehead.
But Theo Pinson wasn’t sure; after all, a lot can go wrong in between a dream and reality.
So, last month, at the start of this NCAA tournament, Pinson changed his phone’s screensaver to remind himself what was at stake. He used a photo of himself — well, a shell of himself — sitting in the locker room last year minutes after Kris Jenkins’ shot beat the buzzer, beat North Carolina and delivered Villanova a national championship.
Pinson wanted to look at that image every day and every night until he earned the right to erase it. Until he earned the right to replace it with something better.
It felt fitting that the final sequence of Monday night’s championship game, a 71-65 victory against Gonzaga, featured all five starters in some way or another.
Senior Isaiah Hicks, defying gravity, hanging in the air with the ball on the fingertips of his right hand, making the biggest shot of his Carolina career. Senior Kennedy Meeks, with a block and, later, a steal. Joel Berry’s pass in transition to Justin Jackson for the dunk that sealed the game. And Pinson, of course, throwing the ball into the air as the buzzer sounded and the Tar Heels officially became national champions.
Jackson was stunned to learn that all five starters had a hand in those final seconds. He hadn’t realized in the moment what it looked like, and why that mattered so much.
“That’s the storybook ending to a journey that we’ve had from last year until now that’s unbelievable,” Jackson said. “I can’t reiterate it enough, how proud I am of these guys.”
His phone had buzzed earlier, in the midst of all the on-court confetti and the net-cutting. He had gotten a lot of congratulatory texts, but none more important than the pair he received from last year’s captains, Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson.
PHOTOS: North Carolina vs Gonzaga
A year ago, those two had sat in their locker room, refusing to take off their jerseys, shocked by the abrupt ending to the title game and saddened by the abrupt end to their college careers.
Now, they were sending their congratulations.
“They were just saying they were proud of us,” Jackson said. “I will always say they are a part of this. Unfortunately, we couldn’t send them out the way we’re sending out these seniors, but they were part of a team that caused us to have more motivation this year. I will always say this is a family and they are definitely part of this family."
The tears came quicker than most anyone expected — and they hit just about everyone. For Berry — named the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player after a game-best 22 points — they came after he was fouled with seven seconds left and a five-point North Carolina lead.
“All of a sudden, the ref came up to me and said, ‘Your coach wants to know if you want a timeout,’ and I said yes,” Berry said. “I went up to (coach Roy Williams), and I just hugged him. I told him, 'I'm about to cry.' And he just told me to just go out there and knock my free throws in.
“I miss the first one, knock in the second one and I’m running down the court and I’m crying.”
Meanwhile tears started to hit Pinson and Hicks and everyone else who was on the court for those final seconds, all those who’d endured the heartbreak almost exactly a year ago. The final moments before the buzzer were blurry — as the Tar Heels tried to see their history-making through their tears. They’d become just the fourth team ever to lose the title game the previous year, and come back and win it the next.
“I really couldn't see nothing,” Hicks said. “You know, it’s a complete 180 from last year. I feel like this is what we worked for. It's finally here. It's hard to describe it. It's so surreal. And I had to pinch myself one time. I just couldn't believe it.”
Pinson and his road roommate, Berry, had finished up their pregame naps at the team hotel on Monday afternoon when they got to talking about life and, eventually, the concept of a second chance. Not many people would ever experience what they were about to — an opportunity to finish off the task they couldn’t a year ago, the thing that has consumed them for almost exactly 12 months.
“We talked about how we get another shot at this,” Berry said. “We weren’t going to let it get away from us. Theo made a joke – he was like, ‘Man, even if I have to steal that trophy from Gonzaga if we lose, I’m not leaving that gym without that trophy.’ ”
The two made a pact; they’d leave it all out there on the court. Berry would play his best and hardest, despite two bum ankles, sprained at various points during this run up to the title game. Pinson, who had battled injuries himself earlier this season, would play until he was “tired as crap,” as he so eloquently put it.
By the final buzzer, Pinson’s left forearm was bleeding, a cut that will almost certainly turn into a scar — a reminder that, yes, he really did leave it all out there.
Just as he promised.
Jenkins stood doubled over, his hands on his knees to steady himself. The emotions he felt surprised him — he didn’t cry last year when his own team had won the title on his stunning shot. But here he was, crying for his brother, Nate Britt, and his brother’s teammates, who all finally got their redemption … from an excruciating loss that he’d been responsible for.
Britt understood all season long that he could never escape that. He’d always see highlights of The Shot, or get asked about it. He’d known his brother — Britt’s parents were Jenkins’s legal guardians at one point, and they all still celebrate holidays together — had the ultimate one-up on him.
Though Britt wanted to use last year’s loss to motivate himself and his teammates, he didn’t dare let himself imagine what winning a game like that could feel like. “Every time I tried to think about us winning it, I could only think about last year’s outcome,” Britt said.
Kris Jenkins, watching his brother Nate Britt win his own national championship: pic.twitter.com/CPJckN5ROj— Nicole Auerbach (@NicoleAuerbach) April 4, 2017
But now, as he sat on the opposite end of that kind of result — a winner this time, part of the 2017 national champion team — Britt let himself off the hook.
“Kris can jab at me about him hitting the shot now; I don’t care,” Britt said, smile as wide as his ears. “Big brother got a ring, now I’ve got a ring. It’s all good now. …
“We’re living the dream right now. I can’t complain about anything for the rest of my life now.”
Said Jenkins: “We’ve got two national championships in the family now. … He deserves it. He deserves all of it.
The Hall of Fame coach hobbled around the court, stepping in, on and around bits of blue confetti and yellow streamers. He’d been mobbed by his players already — repeatedly — and he was looking for his family, who had just been handed passes that allowed them on the court for the postgame trophy celebration.
Williams knelt down next to his two grandchildren, so he could look them in the eyes. He gave the youngest, Court, a hard time.
“You were jumping around, celebrating too hard that you lost a tooth?” Williams asked, wide-eyed.
Court blushed and shook his little head. Williams grinned.
The feeling of inadequacy Williams felt a year ago will always stick with him. He said he’s never felt worse than he did when he walked into his losing locker room almost exactly a year ago.
But let’s be clear: This championship helps the hurt. It might not erase it completely but it sure offsets quite a bit.
And perhaps it’s simply a product of recency bias, but Williams said late Monday night that this might be the sweetest of his three national championships.
“I mean, 351 teams start out thinking that maybe we could do that,” Williams said. “Some of them are more realistic than others, but even the ones that have no chance, they think of that moment. So they're all extremely special. I've been very, very lucky.
“But I'd say this one is probably more special because it's been a journey for the last three or four years of trying to do something, trying to do something, trying to do something.”
Sean May couldn’t quite explain it, so he tried to show it: The group chat he still has with 13 of his teammates from the 2005 North Carolina team that won it all. To him, it symbolizes the idea of ties that bind even tighter and more permanently when there’s a championship attached to them.
“Knowing what me and my teammates went through,” said May, who currently serves as both North Carolina’s director of player personnel and an assistant to the head coach. “I told these guys earlier there’s just something about winning this that’s different, that will connect them. I wanted them to experience that. I was emotional after the game because I could see exactly what we went through.
“There’s a bond that happens when you win it. I can’t explain it. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s just the completion of it, knowing that every team in America didn’t win their last game and you did.”
May had been sending the current players text messages before each game. He reminded them how proud he was of them, and how important it was to play for each other. He told them the only thing left to do was pull up a seat to the table he and his teammates had joined more than a decade ago.
“There are great teams in Carolina history, but there’s a back room for the champions,” May said. “For them to pull their seat up to the table — now when they mention the great teams, they’ll mention them.”