One true Carolina

Kris Jenkins watched the final shot from his seat just behind the Tar Heels’ bench. Jenkins, senior forward on Villanova’s basketball team, made the shot at the final buzzer that handed his team last year’s national championship and broke the hearts of Tar Heel players and fans.

Fate must have had a hand in placing him in that courtside seat last night at Memphis’ FedEx Forum, from which he watched sophomore Luke Maye, with 0.3 seconds remaining on the game clock, launch an 18-foot jumper that won the game for the University of North Carolina and sent Kentucky’s Wildcats home.

Redemption. Carolina is on its way to the Final Four in Phoenix, seeking redemption for its crushing loss last year. The urge to return and win the national title is strong among Tar Heel players and fans. The men in light blue will face Oregon in the late game on Saturday night. Earlier, Gonzaga and South Carolina will play. When that night ends, two teams will remain. Late Monday, one will claim the championship.

Carolina’s arrival at the Final Four surprises no one who follows college men’s basketball. It’s an excellent, well-coached team that came within a whisker of winning it all a year ago. The ascendancy of Oregon and South Carolina, however, has wrecked many a bracket filled out by experts and amateurs alike. This is particularly true of the Gamecocks of South Carolina, whose fierce defense deserves much of the credit for getting the team to this point.

Tar Heel fans bristle when they see the precious name of Carolina emblazoned across the chests of South Carolina’s athletes. There is one true Carolina, they grouse. That big capital letter C, adorned with feathers, that the South Carolina university uses as its logo should also have a big S on it. Here’s why.

The University of North Carolina, the oldest public university in the nation, was chartered in 1789. This original Carolina conducted its first classes in 1795. The imitation Carolina, the University of South Carolina, traces its founding to 1801, six years later, as South Carolina College, and held its first class in 1805, a full decade after UNC was holding classes. In all of these intervening years, one university has struggled to borrow identity from the other, more established one, rather than seek to claim its own.

This identity question is not complicated. There is one Carolina, the original, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Its teams wear Carolina blue and white and are called Tar Heels. Then there is South Carolina, based in Columbia, South Carolina. Its teams wear burgundy and black and are called Gamecocks. Perhaps fate will bring all of this down to one final basketball game between South Carolina, emphasis on the word South, and the one true Carolina that deserves to claim that name.

Regardless of who wins that championship, fans know which is the true Carolina. It certainly doesn’t wear feathers.

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