By Larry Penkava
CHAPEL HILL — The thrills of the first half were drowned in an excruciating near-miss at the Smith Center when the favored Kansas Jayhawks edged UNC to take the NCAA national title Monday night.
Thousands came to the arena to watch what they hoped would be the school’s seventh championship. There was a fever pitch as fans actually arrived early for a potential crowning.
Stanford Hunter of Raleigh was working concessions.
“I got here at 10 o’clock this morning and there were people waiting,” he said. Looking out at the crowd he added, “Wow, that’s a lot of people, more than some games.”
Waiting for the game to start, Joshua Daughtry, a recent UNC grad, explained why he came.
“I’m real excited we have a chance at a championship before I move back to Clayton. I think we’re going to win.” Asked if it would be worth coming out if Kansas won, Daughtry just said, “We beat Duke.”
Hannah Gray, a grad student from Tulsa, Okla., admitted that she was pulling for Baylor, her alma mater, when UNC beat them earlier in the tournament.
“But if they had to lose I’m glad it was to UNC,” she said
I went in to find a seat and sat beside two freshmen, Max Sleek from Charlotte and Charlie Dillon from Greensboro.
As if to warn me, Sleek said, “We’re gonna be loud.”
And he was right. In fact, the whole place was as loud as I’ve experienced it.
Unlike Daughtry and Gray, Sleek had been to most of the home games. He was also at the Smith Center for the semifinal against Duke.
“Saturday was like a championship game,” he said. “But I’m still looking forward to tonight.”
Dillon said the Heels just needed to keep it close at halftime.
The game got underway and Kansas took a quick lead, pushing it out to six or seven points. But when the Tar Heels came back to move in front, the crowd reached its loudest, especially after Brady Manek hit two consecutive 3s.
At halftime it was 40-25 in favor of the Heels. The crowd was enjoying it, singing along with Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”
But everyone knew that Kansas would make a run in the second half, but not so quickly. Before the 10-minute mark, the Jayhawks had retaken the lead.
But UNC came back to tie the game at 57-all, even going ahead by a point. The place was literally rocking — I could feel it moving.
Then Armando Bacot went out with an injury and the opposing center promptly scored to give Kansas a lead they wouldn’t relinquish. The Tar Heels had a couple of chances to tie but the shots wouldn’t fall.
Dillon said, “There’s sadness but it’s OK.”
Sleek, who was visibly suffering, was able to see the big picture: “It was a magical ride.”
As the now-quiet crowd was leaving the building, James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind” wafted through the air.
Meanwhile, a young man sat alone with his head in his hands, likely considering what might have been.
Larry Penkava has been writing for newspapers since 1982. He has covered UNC sports, particularly the behind-the-scenes stories, for three years. When he’s not watching the Tar Heels, he enjoys running and reading.