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March 13, 2007The agony of the moment feels as real today as it did a year ago when George Mason shocked Carolina by knocking the Tar Heels out of the NCAA Tournament in a second-round game.
"I just remember the empty feeling you feel inside," senior Wes Miller said. "I'll never forget what that feels like and how helpless it feels once it's over. You want to go back and do things differently. You want another chance, but that's it. Your season is over.
"All of us who were here last year, we have that in the back of our minds. You've got to seize each and every moment. In the NCAA Tournament, there is no time not to bring it."
The top-seeded Tar Heels (28-6) have waited a long year for another chance, and that moment will arrive at approximately 9:50 p.m. on Thursday when UNC opens the 2007 NCAA Tournament against 16th-seeded Eastern Kentucky (21-11) at the Lawrence Joel Coliseum in Winston-Salem.
"It was just quiet," sophomore Marcus Ginyard said of the locker room after the loss to Mason. "Some guys were crying from that painful realization that it's over. On top of that, to realize it was a game that you should have won. It was just a terrible feeling.
"It's terrible. It's something that nobody on this team this year should have to feel. I'm more excited than ever. We've been just waiting to get that next shot at it. The freshmen are excited, but the returning players are even more excited because we came up so short last year."
The Tar Heels are coming off a successful run at the ACC Tournament, winning the league title. Ginyard said that experience should help the freshmen when they get started with this new adventure in Winston-Salem.
"They got a little taste of it at the ACC Tournament," Ginyard said, "being on the tour bus with a police escort, with the media being that much crazier after the games. They're going to see some things they probably haven't seen in terms of the media and the fans and the way we will practice in the open crowd.
"We just have to pull everybody together and let them know we have to be focused."
Brandan Wright is one of those freshmen, and he did just fine in Tampa, Fla., at the ACC Tournament. He won the Everett Case Award as the most valuable player, and UNC became the first team in conference history to win the tournament with three freshmen in the starting lineup.
Since losing at Georgia Tech on March 1, this team has been re-energized. The Tar Heels held a team meeting, cleared the air of any grievances. Now they just seem to get a little better with each passing game.
Wright is clearly playing much more aggressively.
"I'm turning it up as a player," Wright said. "It's that time of year we have to elevate our game and take it to a new level it hasn't reached before. It's that time of year when it has to be done."
Sophomore Bobby Frasor said the Tar Heels made the mistake of overlooking George Mason last season and glancing down the bracket. That is an error the Tar Heels must learn from this time around, he said.
"I just remember how quickly it was over," Frasor said. "We were playing so well. We said, 'We've got a lower-seeded team; maybe we're going to make the Sweet 16.'
"You're looking ahead, you're looking ahead and your season is done - boom."
To keep that from happening, Miller said the cure is to stay in the moment every minute of every day. Practice with a purpose and then translate that into a strong performance on game day the way the Tar Heels did in Tampa.
"You have to stay focused and think about it as one game at a time," Miller said, "and one practice at a time. You can't go through practice week fat and happy, thinking, 'Gosh, we've accomplished so much now we're going to walk through the first and second round.'
"You have to think that we're still going to improve. We still have to play every day in practice and in every game in the tournament focus on the task at hand. If we can build upon the momentum we gained in the ACC Tournament, it will be a big positive for us."