GLENDALE, Ariz. – The shot only hung in the still air of the stadium for a few seconds last April, the shot that Kris Jenkins took at the very end of the last college basketball game of the season. If it seemed a longer time when it took place, before it fell slowly to earth, straight through the rim to make Villanova the national champion, imagine how long the shot has continued to hang over the North Carolina Tar Heels.
Carolina returned to the Final Four this season and can earn some redemption for the one it feels got away. Coach Roy Williams has used that loss as a motivator and continues to reference it this weekend, even though he has not been able to bring himself to watch it again.
"Probably never will," he said.
It would have been a gut-wrenching finish for any coach and any program, but the Tar Heels found it harder to put aside because Jenkins always seems to be looking over their shoulders, sometimes quite literally. Nate Britt, a guard in Williams' eight-man rotation, and Jenkins are brothers. Britt's parents raised Jenkins in their suburban Washington, D.C. home and serve as his legal guardians. The two attended Gonzaga High School together before going their separate ways for college.
When the Tar Heels were in Memphis for the South Regional, where they would advance from the final with a last-second shot that was eerily reminiscent of the one that eliminated them a year earlier, there was Jenkins behind the bench rooting them on. Jenkins is also in Phoenix for the Final Four and will no doubt have a seat near the Carolina team again.
"They told me after the game he was there. I didn't know until then," Williams said after the Memphis game. "What was really ironic is. . .no more than a couple weeks after the season was over last year, one of the assistants came in and said Kris was there and wanted to know if he could play pickup with our guys that afternoon. That was a little unusual."
When Jenkins came to Chapel Hill last spring, Britt made sure Williams, who recruited both of them, was aware of his presence.
"I actually took him to coach's office. For Kris to be there, on coach's grounds, I definitely felt the best thing was to go show respect and say hello," Britt said Friday before practice at the University of Phoenix Stadium. "But it's not a new thing for Kris to be around. He's come down to Carolina every year I've been there. Last year was a little awkward at first, but then things got back to normal terms. It's a friendly kind of dynamic between Kris and the guys."
Getting away from Jenkins is one thing. Getting away from the loss has been another. It isn't as if North Carolina is a small program that only rarely visits the Final Four or has a chance for a title. The Tar Heels have won the championship five times and been in the Final Four 11 times since 1991. But the way they lost – and the way Villanova won – just seconds after a double-clutching prayer by Marcus Paige of UNC to tie the game and momentarily force overtime, stung the Tar Heels like a jolt of electricity at the time and they still feel the sting.
"In the locker room was the most inadequate feeling I've ever had in my life," Williams said. "It's hard to think about. It's hard to talk about, because my kids gave me everything they had. The other team made a big-time play."
Bigger even than the regulation buzzer-beater by Luke Maye to lift Carolina past Kentucky last weekend. That one didn't capture a title, only the right to continue to play for one. The road continues in the semifinals on Saturday against Oregon, with the winner advancing to play the winner of Gonzaga-South Carolina.
North Carolina is a five-point favorite over Oregon, which lost power forward Chris Boucher to a knee injury in the Pac-12 tournament. (Gonzaga is favored by seven points over South Carolina.) The Tar Heels dodged a showdown of No. 1 seeds in the semifinal when the Ducks upset Kansas in the final of the Midwest Regional.
"It's rare that you have a team that goes to the Final Four in back-to-back years," Britt said. "It's extremely big for our freshmen who haven't experienced it. Especially for me and the rest of the seniors, this is our last year and there have been points through the year when we tell the younger guys how much fun it is. So, I'm glad we get to share that with the young guys."
It doesn't always end well, and Carolina has recent experience with that, too. But at least they get a chance to rewrite the ending this time.
"We can't compare this team to last year, because it isn't the same thing," senior Kennedy Meeks said. "We're in the same position, but it's a new year. We just happen to be the only team that's back."
Kris Jenkins is back as well, but he won't be playing this time. He will still be looking over their shoulders, however, and so does the shot that hung in the air and continues to cast a shadow over them all.