Mar. 23, 2014 @ 10:53 PM

The play was set. Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina’s best passer, would inbound the ball from half court. Marcus Paige and Leslie McDonald, the team’s best shooters, would try to get an open look.

Except there would be no miracle finish this time. No. 19 North Carolina wouldn’t even get the chance.

In an unusual ending to a strange season, the referees ruled that time had already expired before UNC could run a final play. No. 9 Iowa State came back from eight points down with four minutes left and DeAndre Kane hit the deciding layup with 1.6 seconds to play to cap an 85-83 win Sunday at the AT&T Center.

Nate Britt received the ensuing inbounds pass and raced to halfcourt to call time out. But after reviewing the video and consulting with each other at center court, the referees ruled the game had ended.

Speaking in the locker room afterward with quivering lips and red eyes, sophomore point guard Marcus Paige was faced with the reality that his season would end in the Round of 32 for the second straight season.

“This is fuel for next year, but this one is going to be tough to swallow,” Paige said. “Going back to class tomorrow, there’s no practice at the Smith Center. I love this group of guys so much that it’s going to be hard to accept the fact that, after 100-some practices, all the shoot-arounds, all the days of lifting weights and coming together — it’s done.”

Playing in its third-ever Sweet 16, third-seeded Iowa State will face No. 7 seed Connecticut Friday at Madison Square Garden.

The state of North Carolina won’t be represented in Sweet 16 for the first time since 1979, and the Tar Heels lost in the opening weekend in consecutive years for the first time under Roy Williams.

Kane finished with 24 points, 10 rebounds and seven assists for the Cyclones (28-7), who were playing without third-team all-Big 12 forward Georges Niang (broken foot) for the first time. But the Tar Heels (24-10) were soon missing their own frontcourt presence when sophomore center Brice Johnson sprained his ankle 5:19 into the game and never returned.

Johnson, who was the team’s third-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder, had 47 points on 22 of 29 shooting and 23 rebounds in his past three games.

Freshman Kennedy Meeks played a season-high 31 minutes in Johnson’s absence and had his first double-double since November against Louisville, posting 15 points and a season-best 13 rebounds.

Former Tar Heel Danny Green, who plays for the San Antonio Spurs, came into the locker room after the game to console the players. “You played your a-- off,” he said when he got to Meeks.

All five starters scored in double-figures for the Tar Heels, led by Paige (19) and McDonald (18). But the bench only contributed six points in Johnson’s absence, and the Tar Heels had more turnovers (12) than assists (10).

The last turnover came from Paige, who got caught in the air in the lane and lost possession with 31 seconds left and the game tied at 81. Kane got behind the defense in transition for a layup four seconds later to give Iowa State the lead.

“I was trying to make a play,” Paige said. “I’ve made plays for this team, my teammates trust me in this situation, the wanted me to have the ball, I wanted to have the ball. I didn’t make the play, and at the end of the day I’m the one who has to go through the next six months thinking about that one play and how that cost us the game.”

But Paige’s teammates were clear that they wouldn’t blame their leading scorer, or anyone else.

“It’s a 40-minute game,” James Michael McAdoo said. “I shot an airball one of my first shots, missed three free throws. You can go down the line. Marcus kept us in the game — that’s what I say to that. He’s the soul of this team.”

After going 2 of 4 from the line in the final 3.5 seconds in Friday’s 79-77 win over Providence, McAdoo — a 54 percent free-throw shooter — was fouled with 15 seconds left and made both to tie the game back up at 83-83.

Iowa State then ran an isolation play for Kane, who drove into J.P. Tokoto and made a layup over Jackson Simmons with 1.6 seconds left.

“He’s been our Mariano Rivera,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. “He’s been our closer all throughout this season.”

Paige has that role for UNC — his shot with 0.9 seconds left in overtime gave the Tar Heels the win over N.C. State in Raleigh — but he didn’t get a chance to answer on Sunday.

It was the first time in UNC’s 153-game NCAA Tournament history that the Tar Heels had consecutive games decided by two points or less, and this time it was the opponent who made the last play down the stretch.

The Tar Heels played the whole season without P.J. Hairston, last year’s leading scorer who was kicked off the team for violating NCAA rules, and played the first nine games without McDonald, the team’s only senior, who also committed NCAA infractions.

After upset wins and head-scratching losses in the non-conference schedule, UNC then started 1-4 in the ACC, putting its NCAA Tournament future in doubt until a 12-game conference winning streak landed the Tar Heels safely in the field.

“It’s tough,” McAdoo said. “We came in with big goals. We didn’t accomplish all those, but I feel like we fought very well through the adversity that we came up against — some of it we caused ourselves. We accomplished a lot of things, but obviously the last thing we’re going to remember is this game.”


  FG FT Reb
Meeks 31 6-11 3-4 4-13 1 3 15
Tokoto 28 5-8 1-2 2-6 2 3 11
McAdoo 31 5-14 4-7 1-7 2 3 14
McDonald 30 7-15 0-0 1-2 2 4 18
Paige 37 7-16 1-2 0-1 0 1 19
Britt 25 1-2 0-0 0-2 3 1 2
Johnson 2 1-2 0-0 2-2 0 1 2
Hubert 2 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 1 0
Simmons 5 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 1 0
Hicks 6 1-1 0-0 0-1 0 3 2
James 3 0-1 0-0 0-0 0 0 0
Totals 200 33-70 9-15 12-38 10 21 83

Percentages: FG .471, FT .600.

3-Point Goals: 8-20, .400 (McDonald 4-9, Paige 4-10, Tokoto 0-1).

Team Rebounds: 4.

Blocked Shots: 4 (Meeks 2, McAdoo, Tokoto).

Turnovers: 12 (Paige 4, Britt 3, McAdoo 2, Hubert, McDonald, Meeks).

Steals: 8 (Tokoto 2, Paige 2, Hicks, Britt, Meeks, McAdoo).

Technical Fouls: None.

  FG FT Reb
Ejim 33 8-16 1-3 2-4 2 3 19
Hogue 35 3-7 7-9 4-7 3 5 14
Edozie 16 0-2 0-0 2-4 0 2 0
Morris 32 4-11 2-2 0-3 2 2 13
Kane 39 9-18 5-7 1-10 7 3 24
Dorsey-Walker 1 0-0 0-0 0-0 0 0 0
Long 26 4-8 0-0 0-1 1 0 12
Thomas 16 1-4 0-0 0-2 1 2 3
Gibson 2 0-0 0-0 0-1 0 0 0
Totals 200 29-66 15-21 11-37 16 17 85

Percentages: FG .439, FT .714.

3-Point Goals: 12-26, .462 (Long 4-8, Morris 3-4, Ejim 2-6, Hogue 1-2, Thomas 1-2, Kane 1-4).

Team Rebounds: 5.

Blocked Shots: 1 (Ejim).

Turnovers: 14 (Kane 7, Ejim 2, Hogue 2, Thomas, Morris, Long).

Steals: 6 (Ejim 2, Hogue, Thomas, Long, Morris).

Technical Fouls: None.

North Carolina 37 46—83
Iowa St. 40 45—85


Officials_Tony Greene, Chris Rastatter, Bo Boroski.