CHAPEL HILL, N.C. >> North Carolina dedicated the past year to redeeming itself for 4.7 agonizing seconds.
Now these Tar Heels will hang another banner from the Smith Center rafters.
Or the ceiling. But probably not the roof.
No longer haunted by the memory of a buzzer-beating loss in last year’s title game, but galvanized by a misstatement from their most decorated former player, the Tar Heels returned home today with their sixth NCAA Tournament trophy, which they earned a night earlier by beating Gonzaga in the championship game.
“This year,” senior Isaiah Hicks said, “we did it.”
Thousands of fans poured into the arena and onto the court before the team’s flight had even landed at nearby Raleigh-Durham International Airport, and they cheered fanatically every time live footage of the team’s motorcade was shown on the video scoreboards.
When the individual players were introduced, they showered Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Justin Jackson with chants of “one more year.”
“It just didn’t seem like we were going to get back to where we wanted to be, and you all did a great job,” said guard Joel Berry II, still wearing the net from the title game around his neck. “We just basically did our thing, and we came back home with it.”
This was the first time the team and its fans were together inside the Smith Center since a victory over Duke in the regular-season finale exactly one month earlier — a night made memorable by Michael Jordan’s surprise appearance at halftime to announce a partnership between the athletic department and his Nike line.
During his remarks to the crowd, he said of the football program: “The ceiling is the roof.”
Just as quickly as it went viral, the basketball team adopted it as its rallying cry for the postseason.
Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams said he received a text from Jordan congratulating him because he “raised the ceiling to the roof.”
And during another memorable snapshot from the celebration, the in-house cameras turned toward the six banners hanging from the arena’s rafters while athletic director Bubba Cunningham repeated Jordan’s malapropism.
The Tar Heels (33-7) climbed as high as No. 3 in the AP Top 25 and were sixth in the final media poll, won the Atlantic Coast Conference’s regular-season title by two games and earned No. 1 seeds in both the conference and NCAA tournaments.
They won their last five NCAA Tournament games by an average of 5.6 points, earning a one-point victory over Oregon in the Final Four before pulling away to beat Gonzaga and claim their latest championship while capping a season overshadowed by events from both the near and distant past.
Another year was played amid the shadow of an NCAA investigation into the school’s long-running academic fraud scandal touching athletes in numerous sports, tied to irregularities in an academic department and leading to five broad-based charges against the school that include lack of institutional control.
The NCAA reopened its investigation in summer 2014 and first charged UNC in a Notice of Allegations (NOA) filed in May 2015. It then revised the charges in a second version last April, and then changed them again in a third version filed in December.
There’s currently another delay while the school and the NCAA work on a new schedule for UNC to file its response to the third Notice of Allegations, as the attorney for a woman at the center of the scandal said he is working to set up an interview after she had previously refused to speak with investigators.
The investigation began in 2010 — meaning the players on this team were still years away from arriving in Chapel Hill when it started.
What haunted them most was how last season ended .
They couldn’t escape the highlights from the 2016 championship game, when Marcus Paige seemingly sent the title game to overtime with an acrobatic jumper with 4.7 seconds left — only to lose when Kris Jenkins beat the buzzer with a dagger of a 3-pointer that gave Villanova the title.
The season-long vow was to get back to the title game, and not let it slip away this time. They kept that wound fresh all year: Jackson gave the team’s text-messaging group a name — “Redemption.”
By today, according to a screenshot posted on Twitter by guard Nate Britt , the group had a new name.