Brice Johnson has played in 146 games during the past four seasons at North Carolina. Marcus Paige has played in 139. And now at the Final Four they are in their final days of their time as UNC basketball players.
“Man,” Johnson, the senior forward, said Friday, shaking his head at the thought.
“Yeah,” Paige, the senior guard, said in another room. “It’s hard to believe.”
Their four years at UNC have been building to the moment that now awaits them: a game against Syracuse on Saturday in the national semifinals, followed, they hope, by the national championship game on Monday.
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Win or lose, though, the end of their college careers has arrived. And it came faster than he ever expected, Paige said.
“I don’t think that will hit me until I get back to Chapel Hill and realize that we don’t have practice and I’ve got to go clean my locker out and stuff like that,” Paige said. “And then it will hit me that, like, it’s all over. Or if we’re cutting down the nets, it might hit me then.”
Paige and his teammates cut down the nets after their ACC tournament championship game against Virginia on March 12. They did it again after their victory against Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament East regional championship game last Sunday night.
Paige kept both nets UNC had cut down.
“I still have them in my room,” Paige said. “I haven’t decided what I’m going to do with them. But they’re with my hats right now. So hopefully I can add another hat and another net and then I’ll worry about what to do with them.”
BASELINE SHOTS DIFFERENT IN NRG: Most players have spent the past two days downplaying the effect the cavernous NRG Stadium has on shooting (a negative effect that has been statistically proven to have an average negative effect on 3-point shooting of about 4 percentage points, according to statistician Ken Pomeroy).
But Marcus Paige pointed out the spot on the court where shooting in a huge dome does feel different than shooting in a traditional basketball arena.
“When you shoot from the corner, you can only see the rim, and then it’s just like an eternity behind you,” Paige said. “That’s the only adjustment, is shooting from the baseline, you don’t have as many of those physical things that you can see when you’re shooting.
“When you shoot from straight on, you have the whole backboard, a lot of visual things that help you with depth perception.”
Paige said he keeps his eyes right on the front of the rim, “dead center” from where he is on the court. And then he concentrates on his follow through.
“If I hold my follow through and get a good arc on the ball,” he said. “I feel like it’s going to go in.”
JUSTIN JACKSON COMES HOME: While the site of this year’s Final Four is technically a homecoming for Justin Jackson, who hails from nearby Tomball, Tx., he hasn’t exactly had time to visit any of his favorite spots.
“We have zero time,” he said.
The Tar Heels have a tight schedule, with various media availabilities, practices and mandatory dinners and functions. But the lack of flexibility did come in handy for one thing: avoiding endless ticket requests.
“We only got six,” Jackson said. “Which five of them were taken up by my immediate family.”
Jackson said the sixth ended up going to one of his dad’s close friends. Outsourcing the decision on the last one was the best solution, he said.
“For me, I have three or four best friends, and I felt like it wouldn’t be right for me to just give one of them,” he said.
THIRD TIME’S A CHARM?: UNC twice defeated Syracuse during the regular season, which has raised the thought this week that it’s more difficult to beat the same team three times in the season.
UNC Roy Williams isn’t buying that thought, though.
“If you’re better than me, you can probably beat me 20 times,” he said.
The Tar Heels left Syracuse with an 84-73 victory on Jan. 9. UNC also prevailed against Syracuse during a 75-70 senior night victory on Feb. 29.
UNC attacked Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense in different ways in both of those games. In the first matchup, the Tar Heels had success with their high-low offense, with Brice Johnson often passing to Isaiah Hicks down low for layups and dunks. In the second game, Syracuse forced UNC to score in other ways.
“Golden State this year has beaten a lot of people four, five, six times,” Williams said, referencing the NBA’s Golden State Warriors. “I’m not trying to compare us to Golden State. I guarantee you in the locker room, that coach doesn’t talk about, ‘We’ve beaten them seven times, beating them eight is really hard.’ ”