Tobacco Road took an early exit on the road to the Final Four this season. For just the third time since 1980, North Carolina will not have a team in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
While North Carolina and Duke took center stage last year with a Final Four showdown, this is the second time in the last three seasons that the state folded up its tents after the first weekend of March Madness. North Carolina also didn’t have a team advance to the Sweet 16 in 2014, marking the first time since 1979 it had been shut out.
The University of North Carolina, responsible for 28 Sweet 16 appearances over the last 43 seasons, was home for the Big Dance after the Tar Heels were eliminated from the ACC Tournament, finishing an inconsistent season for last year’s NCAA Championship Game runner-up.
That left three representatives from the state heading to the NCAA Tournament, with none of them performing well enough in the regular season to earn a bid to nearby Greensboro, which treated local fans to Kentucky, Xavier and Kansas State instead of the usual local heroes.
The Bulldogs had the longest trip after winning the Big South Tournament to earn their fifth NCAA bid in school history and first since 2016. UNCA received a No. 15 seed and traveled to Sacramento to face second-seeded UCLA.
“Could we be the Cinderella team?” asked senior Drew Pember. “Only the Lord knows that. It could happen. We don’t know. So we’re just going to go out tomorrow night and just have fun, enjoy the moment and do what we do.”
It turned out the glass slipper didn’t fit, and the Bulldogs fell to the Bruins, 86-53, ending their season at 27-8.
“I’m not going to let one game damper what this awesome team has done not only for our program but for our university and for our city and everything,” said coach Mike Morrell. “It’s just been a really, really special year.”
Morrell will also get back Pember, the Big South Player of the Year, next season after he told ESPN he is returning for one more year in Asheville.
The Wolfpack also racked up frequent flyer miles after being sent to Denver as an 11th seed. They faced No. 6 Creighton. Whether it was the altitude or the unfamiliar arena, NC State struggled with its shooting in the game, missing its first eight shots and finishing just 3 of 14 from 3-point range for the game. Creighton wasn’t much better, shooting just 3 of 20 from outside, but the Bluejays had 7-foot-1 Ryan Kalkbrenner, and NC State didn’t have an answer for him.
Kalkbrenner had six dunks, seven rebounds and 31 points, even hitting a 3-pointer while getting State big men DJ Burns and Ebenezer Dowuona into foul trouble. The Pack fell 73-62 and finished their season at 23-11, a huge step up from last year when a 20-loss campaign had coach Kevin Keatts on the hot seat.
“I am super proud of my team,” Keatts said. “I mean, when you look at where we were at last year to where we’re at now and how hard our guys worked, what a season we had with 23 wins and guys playing their butts off. … I thought those guys completely fought the entire year. We did some really good stuff. We are going to walk out of here with our head up, continue to build and keep pushing this program in the right direction.”
The Blue Devils produced the state’s only win in this year’s tournament. Duke received a No. 5 seed and was sent to Orlando. The Blue Devils opened up with a 15-0 run against No. 12 Oral Roberts and added a 10-0 run to start the second half to cruise to a 74-51 win. Then, the injury bug hit Duke as freshman forward Mark Mitchell, who had started every game this season, hurt his knee and wasn’t able to play against No. 4 Tennessee. The Volunteers’ physical style was too much for the shorthanded Blue Devils, who fell 65-52.
Duke finished the season — Jon Scheyer’s first as head coach — at 27-9.
“We ran into the wrong team on the wrong day,” he said. “They outplayed us today, and you have to credit them. But I felt like we could play with anybody in the country. That’s for me by far the most rewarding thing. To represent the school where I played, where I’ve coached for the last nine years has meant the world, and I’m just proud of these guys for what they’ve done.”
Now Duke will await word from its freshman stars to see who will return for another season in Durham.