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Bigger Fish To Fry

With history as a tool, Kenny Williams and the older Tar Heels know something bigger and more important still looms. (Jenna Miller, THI)

CHARLOTTE – Words of wisdom in North Carolina’s locker room mere moments after it fell to Duke, 74-73, in the ACC Tournament semifinals on Friday night came from an unlikely source, but the message was spot on and well received.

“I came in the locker room and the first thing I said was ‘my freshman year we lost to Duke in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament and we went on to win the national championship, we’ve got to stay together,’” junior reserve Brandon Robinson said, following the defeat at Spectrum Center.

Robinson was a freshman on the 2017 Tar Heels’ team that imploded in the second half in Brooklyn in a loss to the Blue Devils. The locker room after that game was fraught with disappointment but also an understanding that the bigger deal was in front of them.

That experience Robinson had along with seniors Luke Maye and Kenny Williams and junior Seventh Woods may pay off as the Heels turn their attention to the NCAA Tournament. Carolina will learn Sunday evening where it’s seeded, its region, where it’s headed for the opening weekend of the tournament and who it will be paired with.

Williams and Robinson quickly processed Friday's loss and moving forward. (Jenna Miller, THI)

Regardless of what the NCAA Selection committee does, the Heels are in complete control of how they handle transitioning from the disappointment of losing a game perhaps they should have won over their arch rivals to zeroing in on the ore important tournament that commences in several days.

“Coach talks about three separate seasons,” Maye said. “We have the regular season, ACC Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. This is going to hurt. We obviously wanted to win because we’re competitors, but we have to move forward and have to see where we go next week.”

Putting it behind them has already begun. In fact, the first part of what could be a national championship run is underway.

“Once we get back to Chapel Hill, we’re focusing on the next one,” Kenny Williams said Friday night. “I just told Nas (Nassir Little) I’ve won and ACC championship, tournament championship… this next one is (for) the national championship and the ACC Tournament has nothing on the national championship.”

It also helps hammer home the message that UNC has a history under Roy Williams of doing better in the NCAA Tournament when it falls in the ACC semis than when it wins the ACC Tournament.

Johnson wasn't around for the 2017 run, but has already heard plenty about it. (Jenna Miller, THI)

Carolina’s three ACC Tournament titles under Williams have come in 2007, 2008 and 2016. The Heels lost in the Elite Eight in ’07, the Final Four in ’08 and lost to Villanova on a last-second shot in the 2016 national title game.

On the flip side, UNC’s three national championships under Williams have all come after the team fell in the ACC Tournament semifinals: 2005 to Georgia Tech in Washington, D.C.; 2009 to Florida State in Atlanta; and 2017 to Duke in Brooklyn.

“And what I will tell you is that, I don't know how many, but we have been to several Final Fours, several,” UNC’s coach said. “We have never won a tournament championship (and also won the NCAA title)… So our season's not over.”

No it’s not, the next leg will begin in earnest either Thursday or Friday somewhere against someone. But the most important part of that equation is the mindset of the Heels, and the early returns are they’ve cut to cord to Friday and are ready for the next challenge.