UNC focused on task at hand, not redemption

While the the Tar Heels overcame both an injury to star Joel Berry and two late deficits to get to this point, winning the NCAAs South Region championship has done little more than put them in a position to complete their unfinished business

Nelson Chenault—USA Today Sports
Luke Maye holds up a piece of the net after helping to cut it down following UNC's victory against Kentucky at the NCAA South Regional in Memphis

PHOENIX — All four teams playing in today’s college basketball national semifinals are equally motivated to bring the championship trophy home with them when they leave Phoenix.

The difference is that while Oregon, Gonzaga and South Carolina will feel a sense of accomplishment even if they don’t, North Carolina’s season won’t be complete if it doesn’t cut down the nets Monday night.

The Tar Heels have been talking about redemption since the moment Kris Jenkins’ 3-pointer at the buzzer sealed their championship game loss to Villanova 360 days ago in Houston.

But while they’ve overcome both an injury to star Joel Berry and two late deficits to get to this point, winning the NCAA’s South Region championship has done little more than put them in a position to complete their unfinished business.

Now comes the hard part, starting with tonight’s semifinal matchup with Oregon at University of Phoenix Stadium.

“I feel like we will be happy as a team if we walk out of here with the trophy,” said Berry, the junior point guard who is bothered by two sprained ankles suffered during this NCAA tournament. “That is what we expect to do. But at the same time, there is so much pressure because you want to do it for your team and your fans.”

The pressure is only heightened by the Tar Heels’ status as the overwhelming favorite to win the championship that barely eluded them last year. It’s a perception based largely on the experience they gained at last year’s Final Four, combined with the lack of experience of their three remaining rivals.

But while the knowledge gained from having been there before undoubtedly helped UNC deal with such peripheral distractions as the seemingly endless media obligations, all the extra attention and the idiosyncrasies of playing in an expansive football stadium, those advantages lessen considerably once the ball goes up and the games begin.

Although they’ve managed to stay loose during their pregame interview sessions — with Pinson providing much of the comic relief, as usual — the Tar Heels have been noticeably more businesslike at this year’s Final Four. Friday, the Tar Heels even skipped the traditional slam dunk show they put on at the end of their open practice.

“Once you’re here, you have to play, no matter what you’ve done in recent years,” senior center Kennedy Meeks said. “It doesn’t matter when was the last time you were here. Oregon is here now and they did a tremendous job of playing together this season. We definitely have to match that.”

The Ducks (33-5) haven’t been to a Final Four since winning the first one that was ever in 1939, but mattered little to All-American guard Dillon Brooks and his teammates when they blew out top-seeded Kansas in the Midwest Region championship game last week to earn their trip to Phoenix.

While Oregon’s motivation might be vastly different than that of the Tar Heels (31-7), its desire to win the title is just as great.

As UNC guard Theo Pinson pointed out, nobody is going to hand his team the trophy just because it came so close last year.

“It’s a new game, a new Final Four, a new team,” he said. “Right now we’re just focusing on Oregon. I think everybody is ready to play the game. I mean, we did lose it last year, but at the same time we know that we have to take care of business first and that’s Oregon.”

Redemption, after all, is still one game away. Not that such things are at the forefront of the Tar Heels’ thinking right now.

“I think the offseason was the biggest part of where we felt we had unfinished business,” ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson said. “I don’t know how you can have revenge on a team that wasn’t the person that took it from you. For us, we’re just trying to focus on Oregon and that’s it.”