(Photo courtesy of UNC Athletic Communications)

Playing basketball at North Carolina is like no other experience. Running out of that tunnel at the Dean Dome and hearing 20,000 people screaming and yelling as the band plays our fight song is incredible. But at Chapel Hill the game day experience doesn't just start at tipoff. Throughout the afternoon as you attend classes, you see students wearing their UNC basketball jerseys. There is a palpable buzz around gameday. Plus there is the history and tradition here. Tyler Hansbrough played here. Vince Carter played here. James Worthy played here.

Oh yeah, and some shooting guard named Michael Jordan played here too.

That legacy inspired me, and made me want to come here as a kid. I grew up in Virginia, but the school I loved to watch was UNC. I had initially committed to VCU in high school, but once Shaka Smart took the job at Texas, I jumped at the opportunity to play for the Tar Heels.

It seemed like a dream come true. I was going to be playing for the team I grew up cheering for. Then when I got here I realized just how far down the depth chart I was going to be.

We were the # 1 ranked team as my freshman season started, and for good reason. Justin was a future first round pick of the Trail Blazers, and Brice Johnson became a first round pick with the Clippers. Marcus Paige, who was also on that team, was drafted in the second round by the Nets.

When you realize that only five guys are on the court at one time, it didn't take me long to see that my time on the court was going to be limited. As it turned out, I logged double-digit minutes just twice the entire season, and I didn't make a single 3-point shot – which was supposed to be my specialty – until March. It was a huge transition for me, because when I was in high school, I was the guy. Nearly everything on the court ran through me. God really humbled me when I stepped foot on the Chapel Hill campus.

In fact, for pretty much every single player at UNC, we all had to make that transition. Luke averaged 16.9 points per game as a junior, but back when he and I were just freshmen, he averaged just 1.2 points a game. With so many talented players on the team competing for playing time, Luke could have chosen to get excited about my injury when I was a sophomore, because it meant more playing time for him. Instead, he did just the opposite.

That's why cheering for him was so easy. I just didn't realize that with our season on the line in the NCAA Tournament, the ball would end up in his hands.

To be fair, however, I didn't think our season would be on the line at all. As we faced Kentucky in the Elite 8, with a chance to reach the Final Four, we were up by 71-64 with just over 50 seconds to go. It seemed like the game was ours.

Then the comeback happened. Kentucky's De'Aron Fox made a 3-pointer to cut it to 71-67, and after we turned the ball over, Malik Monk made another 3-pointer for the Wildcats to trim the lead to 71-70. Even after we made a layup at the other end with 34 seconds to go, Kentucky wasn't done. Malik circled around a screen and buried another 3-pointer. Now there were only 7.2 seconds to go, and all of a sudden the game was tied.

We raced down the court and with 3 seconds left my teammate Theo Pinson shoveled a pass back to Luke. Now time was running out and Luke let it fly....3...2....1....money.

 
 

I was on crutches, but I remember going crazy on the bench. All of us were, because we were heading back to the Final Four. And we were determined to come home with a championship this time.

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Thomas Hager