CHARLOTTE — Joel Berry and Theo Pinson walked slowly and quietly down a hallway from their locker room to a postgame press conference at Charlotte’s Spectrum Center on Sunday.
It was a symbolic journey.
Four years earlier, the two arrived together during perhaps the most uncertain time in North Carolina’s proud basketball history, with the dark cloud of NCAA allegations hanging over their heads. Now here they were, still side-by-side, on their way to perform their final official duties as Tar Heels.
Though their careers didn’t end the way they had hoped, with a second round NCAA tournament loss to Texas A&M instead of a third straight national championship game appearance, their disappointment was clearly tempered by the satisfaction of all they’d accomplished.
At the same time, there was more than the usual sense of finality to Sunday’s 86-65 defeat at the hands of the seventh-seeded Aggies.
It was as if more than just a season had ended. For UNC, this was more like the end of an era.
“You can’t put into words, you can’t really measure what they’ve done,” junior teammate Kenny Williams said of Berry and Pinson. “I can’t even process that right now. They’ll be remembered forever in Carolina history. To not have them wear the uniform here again makes this a lot more than just the end of a season.”
Between them, the UNC seniors combined to win 203 games as Tar Heels, helping the team to a pair of ACC regular season titles, a conference tournament championship and two straight Final Four appearances.
Though their roles have changed during their time in Chapel Hill, they were the one constant throughout a period that saw UNC weather the NCAA storm while hanging another championship banner from the Smith Center rafters.
They became the face of the program this season while leading a team that lacked both size and frontcourt experience to 26 wins and a No. 2 NCAA tournament seeding.
That, said coach Roy Williams, is how he’ll remember his “tough little nut” of a point guard and his versatile 6-foot-6 swingman who always seemed to have a smile on his face.
“These two guys up here have given me so many thrills and taken me on so many unbelievable rides,” Williams said. “That’s the overwhelming feeling I have right now.”
Those successes are the reason why, other than Williams — who traditionally cries at the end of every season, win or lose — there was a noticeable lack of tears in the aftermath of Sunday’s lopsided loss.
“Probably the main reason I’m not crying right now is because I’ve enjoyed every single moment I had with Coach, Joel and all my teammates in the past, teammates in the locker room,” Pinson said. “That’s the hardest thing. … I won’t get to spend more time with them.”
As much as the Tar Heels will miss their presence in the locker room and on the court next season, Pinson and Berry will continue to have a major influence on the team because of the lessons they taught their younger teammates.
“The biggest thing I learned from those guys is that they approach the game in a really good way,” graduate transfer forward Cameron Johnson said. “Joel is a hard worker and Theo … just the energy that he plays with and his creativity on the court, he puts a lot of time into it.”
Johnson, who has one year of eligibility remaining, has yet to say if he plans to return for 2017-18.
Regardless of his decision, the Tar Heels should have plenty of experience, with first-team All-ACC forward Luke Maye and shooting guard Kenny Williams both back for their senior seasons. Current reserves Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson — both of whom have national championship rings — figure to play expanded roles, as does freshman Andrew Platek while incoming five-star freshmen Coby White and Nassir Little will add athleticism and scoring prowess to the rotation.
The biggest question, as it was this season, will be in the paint and the jump young big men Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley make between their freshman and sophomore years. Both showed flashes of potential, but because of their inconsistency Williams chose to use them sparingly while going with a primarily small lineup.
It’s a strategy that carried the Tar Heels farther than expected this season, until it became their ultimate undoing against a bigger, more experienced Texas A&M front line that combined for 40 points, 30 rebounds and six blocked shots Sunday.
“The kind of guys we have, when they’re sophomores, juniors, seniors, they’ll be able to handle some of the more gifted (big men),” Williams said. “But today was a fear.”
And a disappointment.
The reality of the situation began to kick in long before the final buzzer, as the Aggies’ lead continued to grow past 20 points. It reached a climax with just over a minute remaining when Williams took his senior leaders out for the last time — giving each an emotional hug before they walked off into the sunset together.
“I didn’t picture it ending it like this,” Williams. “I pictured it ending with these guys having a huge smile on their face. But that’s not college basketball.”