For six months the North Carolina basketball team awaited this opportunity. Tonight at Ford Field in Detroit, the Tar Heels will face Villanova in the national semifinal.
But tonight's game isn't just about this team, nor is it about only this season. One year ago, in the same timeslot, UNC was routed and humiliated at the hands of eventual national champion Kansas, which jumped out to a surreal 40-12 lead and left the Tar Heels for dead.
I wrote about the lingering emotional trauma of that game at the opening of preseason practice. When the season opened officially with Late Night With Roy festivities, fans clearly were experiencing a sense of great anxiety along with wild excitement.
The aftermath of last season's tournament defeat combined with the return of nearly every major player from the 2008 squad set the stage: The season would be defined by enormous expectations and the potential for a catastrophic downfall.
What if the Heels again got embarrassed in the NCAA Tournament? What if they didn't even make the Final Four?
And it was an issue throughout the season. No matter what the Tar Heels accomplished during conference play, or in the ACC Tournament, or during the first four rounds of the NCAA Tournament, the only steps taken could be backward. No one wins a national title in January, and at times Carolina appeared to play under the suppression of that logical reality.
Two losses to begin ACC play. Another series of close calls against inferior opponents. Sure, injuries to Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Marcus Ginyard and Tyler Zeller contributed to the malaise, but as it has time and time again, the Tar Heels marched forward and did enough to win the ACC regular season, sweep Duke and earn a No. 1 seed for the NCAAs.
And in the tournament, Carolina finally crossed into the borders of Mordor. The Heels looked sloppy against LSU in the second round, but inspired play by Ty Lawson propelled them into the final 16.
Last weekend, the Heels destroyed touted Gonzaga — a game that had been cited by national pundits as a potential upset — and cruised against Oklahoma and national player of the year Blake Griffin. Even with Wayne Ellington and Tyler Hansbrough off their games, the Heels still won by double-digits.
Which brings us to tonight. Win or lose, the Tar Heels will be ready. Roy Williams downplayed the Kansas game whenever it was mentioned, and finally the fanbase seems to have forgotten. But the players haven't, and odds are they'll be prepared from the open against the Wildcats, a team that certainly has the team quickness to beat them.
Monday night's championship game soon will be set, and for the first time this season, the Tar Heels can smell fresh air.