GLENDALE, Arizona — The flashbacks, North Carolina players say, have occurred every day for the past 12 months.
So it is certainly understandable that images from last season's NCAA title game loss to Villanova—and particularly Kris Jenkins' game-winner at the buzzer—crept into the Tar Heels' heads late in Saturday's Final Four showdown against Oregon at University of Phoenix Stadium.
Just less than six seconds remained, and the Ducks had shaved North Carolina's lead to one, 77-76.
"Every time we get to that moment, [Jenkins'] shot always goes through my head," point guard Joel Berry II said. "I don't ever want to lose like that again. We weren't going to go out with a team hitting another game-winner on us."
It certainly seemed like a possibility, though, as UNC's Kennedy Meeks stepped to the foul line with 5.8 seconds left. Lined up a few feet away, teammate Theo Pinson clapped his hands.
"Finish it!" Pinson said to Meeks. "Finish it this time!"
But Meeks couldn't.
And a few moments later, neither could Berry.
Each player clanked two free throws in the game's final six seconds—gaffes that could've led to heartbreak for North Carolina for the second straight year. But the Tar Heels made up for the bricks with some toughness in the paint, snaring the offensive rebound on both Meeks' and Berry's second miss and denying Oregon a chance to ever attempt a game-winner.
Pinson got the first game-saving rebound, tipping it out to Berry, and Meeks got the second, giving North Carolina the win despite it having shot just 36.8 percent from the field, including only 33.3 percent in the second half. Roy Williams' squad went 11-of-19 from the foul line after intermission.
"I think we're as relieved as we are excited," forward Justin Jackson said. "It got a little scary out there."
That's the way it's been lately for the Tar Heels, who advanced to play Gonzaga in Monday's NCAA title game. Two weeks ago, North Carolina staved off a late charge by Arkansas in a 72-65 victory in the round of 32. And it needed a last-second 18-footer from unlikely hero Luke Maye to beat Kentucky 75-73 in the Elite Eight.
"I can't even explain it," Pinson said. "Look at the last two games we've played. I'm sure every Tar Heel fan in the nation is sitting on their couch feeling relieved. I'd tell all of them, 'Imagine if you were out there.'"
Pressed on what it actually does feel like out there, Pinson smiled.
"Stressful," he said. "Very stressful."
Any tension the Tar Heels have felt thus far, however, won't compare to the pressure that will hover over them in Monday's championship game against No. 1-seeded Gonzaga, which defeated South Carolina 77-73 in Saturday's other semifinal.
Ever since last season's gut-wrenching loss to Villanova, North Carolina has been fueled by one, singular mission.
"We've dreamed about this every day since that game," Pinson said. "That shot Kris made against us ... I think about it every day. Now we have another shot to make up for it.
"We talked all year about getting back here and getting another shot at it. Now we've got another shot. We've got to just go take it."
North Carolina will stand a good chance at giving Williams his third national title if Meeks and Jackson perform even close to as well as they did Saturday. Meeks finished with 25 points (on 11-of-13 shooting) and 14 rebounds, while Jackson scored 22. Through five NCAA tournament games, Jackson is averaging 20.2 points.
Also impressive Saturday was the Tar Heels defense, particularly against Ducks guards Dillon Brooks and Tyler Dorsey. The twosome combined to shoot just 5-of-22 from the field. Dorsey entered the game as the hottest player in the postseason, having reached the 20-point barrier in all five games while shooting 66.7 percent overall and 65.4 percent from beyond the arc.
No Oregon player, though, was more despondent after the loss than Jordan Bell, who finished with 16 rebounds but couldn't come up with the board on either of North Carolina's missed foul shots in the final seconds.
"If I'd have just boxed out. I had two opportunities to do it," Bell said as tears streamed down his cheeks. "I missed both of them. We lost the game because of it."
Thus, Bell and the Ducks will spend the offseason stewing about Saturday's loss, just like North Carolina has ever since it lost to Villanova.
How many Oregon players will use that as motivation for a run like UNC's is an open question. Dylan Ennis (18 points Saturday) is a senior, as is Chris Boucher, a key contributor who missed the tourney run with a torn ACL. Bell and Brooks are juniors but may hear the NBA calling.
The six players who played the most minutes for North Carolina on Saturday—starters Meeks, Jackson, Berry, Pinson and Isaiah Hicks, plus Nate Britt off the bench—all played significant minutes in last year's final against Villanova. Meeks, Jackson and Berry started that game.
Even though he's replayed Jenkins' shot in his mind hundreds of times, Pinson said he's never watched a replay of the 2016 final. He vowed he never will—especially if the Tar Heels beat Gonzaga on Monday.
"I'll throw away the tape," he said, "and look at my ring."
Jason King is a senior writer for B/R Mag, based in Kansas. A former staff writer at ESPN.com, Yahoo Sports and the Kansas City Star, King's work has received mention in the popular book series The Best American Sports Writing. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingBR.