North Carolina became so comfortable with making big shots in big moments in its race to the NCAA men’s basketball national title game on Monday that surely it felt like one more was in store with 4.3 seconds left and trailing 72-69 against Kansas.
For a brief moment, it was easy to see Caleb Love rising to make a 3-pointer, shaking off his 1-for-7 start to that point. Love was 1-for-8 against in the first half against UCLA too, before he erupted for five 3s in the second half and 27 points.
For a split second, it was reasonable to envision Brady Manek show off his quick release that had already accounted for three of Carolina’s five 3-pointers in the game, splashing the nets and sending it into overtime.
It all snapped back to reality in an instant as Love’s final 3 just grazed the rim at the buzzer, leaving the royal blue and red confetti to rain down on Carolina signifying the national title for Kansas.
“It was the national championship, I don’t think anybody was thinking about being tired,” Love said. “We were just trying to go out there and do whatever we had to do to get the win and it was just unfortunate that we came up short.”
Here’s how it was supposed to happen:
Carolina called two timeouts and in their huddle coach Hubert Davis and assistant coach Brad Frederick diagrammed the play referred to as ‘winner’ by former Butler and Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens.
Manek was the first option. He was supposed to run past a screen to the opposite corner from the in-bound passer.
As Manek started in motion, he got a screen from RJ Davis, and it looked like it was going to spring him open on the opposite side. But Manek appeared to trip on Davis’ foot and stumbled through the lane, essentially eliminating him as an option.
“The play was for him to get a baseline screen, we were supposed to throw it to them,” Hubert Davis said. “Looked like he was going to be open, throw it to the opposite corner, but he stumbled and so it threw the play totally off. I think he would have been open. The first option was for him to shoot the 3.”
It typified Manek’s outing against KU. The Jayhawks were able to limit him to just eight shot attempts, which were the fewest he had since Carolina won at NC State on Feb. 26 when he had nine. When he did get the ball, he was effective. Take away his 3-for-6 shooting from behind the arc and the rest of UNC players combined to shoot just 2-for-17.
Love was the second option on the play.
The play was designed for Love to flash out high, but only to wait for Justin McKoy to set up a pick for him to run off of so he could receive the ball for an open 3-pointer.
Love wasn’t supposed to get the ball where he received it, but when Manek stumbled, Puff Johnson made the in-bound pass anyway as it was time to improvise.
Love was being defended by 6-foot-6 Kansas guard Christian Braun. There was no screen to free Love up from Braun, and although he had a step on him driving to the left, Love hesitated with a pump fake that Braun didn’t go for before going up for a jumper.
“Coach Davis and coach Frederick drew up a play for either Brady or me to get the ball, whoever was open,” Love said. “And so it was kind of screen to get me open and it was supposed to be a screen for me to get a flare. Got the ball and I took the shot and came up short.”
‘Winner’ was essentially doomed from the start when Manek didn’t get through the screen clean.
“Because Brady tripped, it just messed up the play,” Davis said. “Caleb shot a great shot. It just didn’t go in tonight.”
The Tar Heels were a bit lucky to get the ball back trailing by three after missing two attempts to tie it before Manek’s pass to Leaky Black went out of bounds.
Kansas guard DaJuan Harris gave them a second chance when he errantly stepped out of bounds while receiving a pass too close to the sideline.
But even when granted another chance, Carolina couldn’t convert the shot. The Heels finished 5-for-23 from the 3-point line. And unlike games at Louisville, at Clemson, in overtime against Baylor, against Duke in the Final Four, it couldn’t come up with the big shot.