CHARLOTTE — Halloween is still a week away, but for two members of the North Carolina basketball team, the haunting has already begun.
It happened Wednesday when Tar Heels Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams were greeted by ghosts of their team’s second round NCAA tournament loss to Texas A&M the moment they arrived at Spectrum Arena for the ACC’s Operation Basketball preseason media event.
“When Kenny and I stepped out of the car, I still felt there were some emotions left over in the loading dock from exiting the game against Texas A&M in the tournament,” Johnson said. “So we weren’t even thinking about ACC tournament or, you know, what’s upcoming. I think that sting of the tournament was still kind of there.”
As the defending national champion and No. 2 seed in the West Region, the Tar Heels were a heavy favorite against the seventh-seeded Aggies at Spectrum Arena last March. Their chances at advancing seemed even better considering their team’s history.
UNC had only lost once in 36 previous NCAA tournament games played in its home state prior the game against A&M. But everything that could go wrong did go wrong that afternoon in an 86-65 drubbing that left the Tar Heels with a bitter taste that still remains — especially for the two team members that had to walk out onto the same court that being used as an interview area Wednesday.
“It’s very vivid when you step back in here, just walking along the sideline, seeing the arena,” Johnson, a 6-foot-8 forward who had seven points and three rebounds in the game while playing with a sore shoulder.
“I have very vivid memories of being on that court, looking at the scoreboard and just time running out. When you’re losing, it’s not as much of a ‘man, we’re down by 20’ as much as you see the clock and (think) ‘the time is running out.’”
As painful as that memory might be, neither Johnson nor Williams needed a return trip to the scene of the crime to be reminded of the way last season ended.
It’s something they’ve carried with them throughout the long offseason.
“We know what happened here and we know that we have some history now,” Williams said. “We’ve just used that as motivation in practice and in the preseason. Coach (Roy Williams) definitely hasn’t let us forget it.
“We use it as fuel and motivation to get back there and not let it happen again in that same situation. So it’s definitely something that we won’t forget.”
While motivation is good, that’s not only the reason why Roy Williams keeps bringing the season-ending loss back up so often.
“I don’t think you should forget things that you have an opportunity to learn from and I think we didn’t play as well as we wanted to play against A&M,” he said. “They did a better job than we did. But I don’t think you should just let those things go.
“I think every year you should remember those things and try to make sure you don’t make the same mistakes. Last year I didn’t think we defended around the rim very well and we didn’t score around the rim very well. Both of those holes in our game really showed up against A&M. So we’ve got to try to correct that.”
As poorly as the Tar Heels played against the Aggies, they weren’t the only ACC team to lay an egg in Charlotte that weekend in Charlotte.
Virginia players Kyle Guy and Jack Salt, along with coach Tony Bennett, were also haunted by their share of ghosts Wednesday as they relived the indignity of becoming the first No. 1 seed in NCAA tournament history to lose a first round game to a 16 seed.
As humiliating as the Cavaliers’ 74-54 upset at the hands of UMBC was, Guy was more philosophical about his return to Spectrum Arena.
“For us, we’re just trying to have fun,” he said. “You win and you lose. It’s not life or death.”
“Every little feeling that I felt is brought back. But I’m more at peace with it and more ready to handle it. So I’m glad that I’m here and felt all those things.”