Marcus Paige didn't want to say afterward what he heard, the kind of things that Providence players were saying on Saturday night, but the Tar Heels remembered those words – the ones that came before and during their 85-66 victory in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The chatter began on Friday, some UNC players said, when the Tar Heels and Friars crossed paths between practices at PNC Arena. And it continued on Saturday even before their game began, top-seeded UNC vs. No. 9 Providence, a trip to an East regional semifinal at stake.
“I didn't hear it but Marcus said they said something when we walked past them,” Justin Jackson, the sophomore forward, said in the early hours of Sunday morning, after UNC had turned a close game into a decisive victory.
As Jackson told it, some Providence players were speaking with bravado, challenging the Tar Heels, well before tip-off on Saturday. And then it continued on – especially during the game's first 25 or 30 minutes, when the Friars were at their testiest and most competitive.
“Yeah,” Paige said afterward when asked if there was more talking than normal on Saturday. “I mean, we know a lot of those guys, played against them from back in the day.
“So it's easier to talk trash when you're familiar with somebody. …I think they thought they had to impose their style on the game to have a chance to win, and that's bodying up, making it ugly.
There was a lot of that - “a lot” of talking, UNC sophomore forward Theo Pinson said.
“Honestly, not a lot of people talk, in my opinion, in college basketball,” Pinson said. “But tonight they were really trying to get in our heads and stuff like that.”
If anything, though, it appeared to motivate the Tar Heels, who turned a tie game with 15 ½ minutes to play into a 19-point victory that lacked any kind of drama during the final minutes. The Tar Heels, the top seed in the East Region, did something similar against Florida Gulf Coast in the first round of the tournament.
And against Pittsburgh in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. UNC has made a habit of this sort of thing lately – of taking control of close games and then removing all doubt, and of finding a way to play its best when its best is most needed.
That time was toward the middle of the second half on Saturday night. Providence, led by All-American guard Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil, the Friars' leading scorer, had been hanging around and hanging around, and the score was tied at 41 with 15 ½ minutes remaining.
But then Jackson made a jumper and Joel Berry made a layup and moments later Johnson completed a game-changing three-point play when he made a free throw after spinning quickly to his right and drawing a foul on a baseline dunk. All of a sudden UNC led 50-41.
Providence, the No. 9 seed in the East, cut its deficit down to five but then UNC responded again. It took a 10-point lead, its largest of the game to that point, on a Paige 3-pointer with a little less than 10 minutes remaining. At the time it was one of the most important shots of the game.
“It was a huge difference when you look up there and it's seven versus looking up and you're seeing double-digits,” Paige said. “At least psychologically for me and for the rest of the team.”
At times this season UNC has struggled to finish games, just like it did last season. At times the Tar Heels have allowed second-half leads to slip away and at times they've faltered in a game's most critical moments.
That sort of thing hasn't happened in a while, though. And it didn't happen on Saturday night.
“They are more experienced,” UNC coach Roy Williams said, “and more focused than they've been the last couple of years, too.”
Williams referenced some of those victories that had escaped the Tar Heels a season ago. The loss against Wisconsin the West regional semifinals. The two defeats against Duke last year during the regular season.
The Tar Heels held second-half leads in all of them and failed to finish. Finally they seem to have reversed that trend, given strong finishes at Duke to end the regular season, and against Virginia in the ACC tournament championship game and now twice here in the NCAA tournament.
“We weren't chopped liver last year,” Williams said, “but everybody's gotten better.”
UNC provided more proof of that during the final 15 minutes on Saturday. The Tar Heels, who'd already managed to target Bentil enough to get him into foul trouble, kept going inside.
Bentil, the Friars' 6-foot-9 sophomore forward, picked up his fourth foul with a little more than eight minutes remaining, not long after he made a 3-pointer that cut UNC's lead to seven points. Less than a minute later Bentil fouled out after making contact with Isaiah Hicks on a defensive rebound.
Bentil had been one of the Friars' more vocal players. He and Johnson, and Hicks, had gone back and forth at times, trading points and baskets and probably trading fewer words, though perhaps not for lack of effort on Bentil’s part.
“Honestly,” Hicks said, “I wasn't paying attention. It goes in one ear and out the other.”
Some of his teammates, though, paid more attention. Like Johnson, for instance.
With Bentil in his ear, with Providence attempting to drag UNC into a figurative fight during the first half, Johnson provided one of the game's most memorable highlights when he blocked a shot that landed among the first few rows at PNC Arena, where UNC was essentially playing a home game.
Johnson could have caught the ill-fated shot or tried to tap it to a teammate. Given the circumstances, though – the score tied at 28, the Tar Heels seeking some inspiration – Johnson went with something different.
“I needed to get some energy in the building,” he said. “It was kind of dead at the time. That's the only reason I did that.”
It worked. The play brought some in the crowd to their feet, and it appeared to energize the Tar Heels, who scored the next six points and took a 34-30 lead into halftime. By then UNC was still searching for its best, still seeking the kind of effort that has defined its seven-game winning streak.
It found it with the score tied again with 15 ½ minutes to play. Eventually UNC's lead grew as large as 22 points. Bentil fouled out. Dunn, the two-time Big East Player of the Year, finished with four fouls himself – but not before scoring a game-high 29 points.
Outside of Dunn and Bentil, though, nobody else scored more than seven points for Providence. Johnson, meanwhile, led another balanced effort for UNC, which shot 60.7 percent in the second half.
Johnson finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds, and Berry and Jackson with 15 points apiece.
“Everything just started clicking for us,” Paige said, describing most of the second half for UNC, which advanced to play against fifth-seeded Indiana on Friday in an East regional semifinal.
Paige declined to describe what he heard during the game – and before it – from Providence. Sharing those details would be “no fun,” Paige said, “because then someone might say something to the media (about) what I said to them.”
It was clear enough, though, that the Friars wanted to test UNC's toughness, which has been in question at times this season. Providence wanted to make the game “chippy,” as Paige put it, and slower and more physical, and for a while it worked.
“We were kind of struggling and playing their game,” Paige said, speaking mostly of the first half. “It was kind of a gritty, grind-it-out (game), slow tempo – a lot of fouls called.”
That's how Providence wanted it. The Friars at the start imposed preferred style and pace.
And yet it didn't last. The Tar Heels found a way to answer all that talk without any words, though in moments they exchanged a few of those, too.
“Nobody's going to punk us,” said Hicks, who finished with 13 points and seven rebounds. “We ain't soft. It's just an illusion, that everybody thinks we're soft.”