ST. LOUIS -- It was an eerily familiar scene Sunday: a moist-eyed Harrison Barnes emerging from a long lament under a locker-room towel; talking about what went wrong, the sudden-ness of losing, the disappointment of falling one game short of the Final Four.
A season ago at Newark's Prudential Center, UNC’s loss in the NCAA regional final felt like it could be a beginning – a learning process for a young team that wasn’t supposed to make it that far.
This time, though, the 80-67 crumble to Kansas at the Edward Jones Dome felt like the end – a goodbye from a squad that expected to go so much farther.
“This year, going into this season, we had a lot of weapons,’’ Barnes said. “We just didn’t have them all at the end. That was the most devastating thing. We didn’t have Kendall [Marshall], we didn’t have Dex [Strickland], we didn’t have Leslie [McDonald]. That’s no excuse. We had an opportunity to win it, we just didn’t.”
Even with McDonald and Strickland (shooting guards relegated to the sidelines since last summer and January, respectively, with knee injuries) sitting in the stands -- and Marshall (the starting point guard who missed his second consecutive game with a fractured wrist) on the bench in street clothes -- the Tar Heels looked as if they could do again what they’ve been doing so often the past two seasons: overcome.
With freshman Stilman White playing fearlessly in his second straight start, UNC pushed back from multiple Jayhawks surges. When Kansas made a 7-0 run in the first half to take a 40-33 lead, UNC countered with an 8-0 rally.
When the Jayhawks opened the second half with another 7-0 run, the Tar Heels came back again, this time 6-0.
That’s why, when Barnes went to the free throw line to try to knot the score with 3:58 left, teammate James Michael McAdoo (15 points) wasn’t worried. “I was like, ‘All right, we’re good,’” the freshman forward said.
Except, they weren’t.
Barnes made one of two free throws to cut the Jayhawks’ lead to 68-67 lead. But then a turnover by Tar Heels sophomore Reggie Bullock turned into a 3-pointer by Kansas’ Elijah Johnson. Barnes, then forward John Henson (who played most of the game on a twisted ankle) missed jumpers. And White – who finished with 13 assists and zero turnovers in his two starts in place of Marshall – fouled Tyshawn Taylor for a 3-point play to give the Jayhawks a 74-67 advantage.
That’s when, as coach Roy Williams said, “we panicked a little bit out there.”
Utilizing a triangle-and-two defense – something the Tar Heels hadn’t faced in a game before this season – Kansas finished the game on a 12-0 run.
UNC, meanwhile, misfired on its final seven shots after the Barnes free throw and finished with its worst field goal percentage in a half in NCAA tournament history (7-31, 22.6 percent). The Tar Heels also recorded their worst 3-point percentage in an NCAA tournament game (2-17, 11.8 percent).
Yes, they missed Marshall, a Cousy Award finalist who had been key to calming, and creating for, his teammates.
But the Tar Heels also missed the rebounding advantage they had prided themselves on all season (Kansas beat them on the boards 41-35). And they missed the accuracy of Barnes, their leading scorer who finished 5-for-14 Sunday and 20-for-61 in four NCAA tournament games.
“I missed a lot of shots I usually make and big-time players come through in big-time games,” the sophomore said. “And it just wasn’t there tonight.”
Now the question is, will it ever be again (at least in a UNC uniform)?
Barnes, Henson, Marshall and McAdoo (who are all considered first round NBA draft choices) shrugged off questions about their futures, saying they weren’t thinking about their next steps during the NCAA tournament. So it’s still unknown who or how many will leave along with scholarship seniors Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts; White (who is leaving for a two-year Mormon mission after this semester); and walk-ons David Dupont, Patrick Crouch and Stewart Cooper.
A year ago, after crying under towels in the locker room, Barnes, Henson and Zeller ultimately returned, saying the goal was to win a national title. There was a sense, even before their official decisions were announced, of what could be.
Sunday, there was more disappointment about what might have been.
“We got to this point last year, and we couldn’t get over the hill,’’ said Henson, who playing with a pain shot and numbing cream on his still-healing left wrist. “And this year, the same way. It hurts. But that’s just how basketball is.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.