During the final seconds of North Carolina’s 83-66 victory against Syracuse on Saturday night in the NCAA tournament national semifinals, Marcus Paige sat on the bench and said he took “about 45 seconds” to absorb the scene in front of him.
There were UNC’s walk-ons and deepest reserves on the court, finishing off a victory that sent the Tar Heels to the national championship game on Monday night. And there were thousands of light-blue-clad UNC supporters behind the bench cheering the moment.
“That was the moment of relaxation and celebration for me,” said Paige, who scored 11 of his 13 points in the second half. “Hugging my teammates, telling them, ‘Hey, we’ve got one more game.’”
One more game. The Tar Heels, the only No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four, advanced to the national championship game for the 10th time in school history. On Monday night at NRG Stadium they’ll play Villanova, which advanced with a thoroughly dominant 95-51 victory against Oklahoma.
UNC (33-6) will end the season exactly where it believed it could – and should: on the final night of the season, on college basketball’s grandest stage. The Tar Heels’ victory against Syracuse (23-14) came in familiar fashion – with balanced, efficient offense and gritty, tough defense.
Paige and his teammates have made a habit of these things during the NCAA tournament. They’ve made a habit of them, really, since their 75-70 win over Syracuse on UNC’s Feb. 29 senior night.
“I think that was around the time we really started clicking defensively as a team,” Paige said. “We didn’t play great at that game, at home, but there was a lot of emotion in that game. But after that game, from that point on, we were terrific defensively, and have been – and were at times tonight.”
Entering Saturday night, one of the primary storylines was how UNC would handle Syracuse’s daunting and challenging 2-3 zone defense. The Tar Heels were seeing it for the third time, and they’d attacked it in different ways during the two regular-season games between the teams.
UNC had success with a high-low game during its 84-73 victory at Syracuse on Jan. 9. In the Feb. 29 game, Syracuse forced UNC to shoot a season-high 25 3-pointers, and that seemed again to be a part of the Orange’s strategy on Saturday.
By halftime, UNC had attempted 11 3s – a somewhat high number for a team that doesn’t base much of its offense on perimeter shooting. And of those first 11 3-pointers, the Tar Heels had made none. And yet still they led 39-28 at halftime.
“If we hit one or two of those it could have broke open way more than that,” Theo Pinson, the sophomore forward, said. “We weren’t really worried about it. Coach (Roy Williams) was like, ‘You can’t shoot it any worse than that. You didn’t make a shot yet.’
“So we all just sat there and thought, ‘Once we start hitting them ...’ ”
UNC began to hit them, as Pinson put it, during the final 10 minutes of the second half, and the Tar Heels’ sudden success from the perimeter helped them turn a close game into one that wasn’t in doubt in the final moments. Not that Syracuse made it easy.
After the Tar Heels built a 17-point lead with 12 ½ minutes to play, Syracuse began pressing and quickly cut UNC’s lead to seven, 57-50, with a little more than 10 minutes to play. It was similar to the kind of run Notre Dame made against the Tar Heels last weekend during the East regional championship game.
In that game, like this one, UNC responded. Paige made a 3-pointer to push the lead back to double-digits, and a Kennedy Meeks tip-in gave UNC a 14-point lead with about 7 ½ minutes to play. Between those plays came another 3 – this one from Pinson.
“The two biggest baskets in the game were when they cut it to seven and Marcus makes a three (and) I think Theo makes a three right behind it,” Williams said.
Said Paige, of his 3 that extended UNC’s lead to 10: “After it goes in, you can feel the whole team take a deep breath.”
The Orange, however, kept trying to rally. Three times during the final six minutes it cut its deficit to 10 points. And three times UNC responded – twice with Paige 3-pointers.
Before his first 3, which came with a little less than 10 minutes remaining, UNC had missed its first 12 attempts from behind the 3-point line. Perimeter shooting wasn’t a big part of the Tar Heels’ offense – UNC attempted 17 3-pointers and scored 50 points in the paint – but the shooting success in the second half allowed UNC to maintain a comfortable lead.
The Tar Heels were balanced, again – as they have been throughout the tournament. Four players scored in double figures, led by Brice Johnson and Justin Jackson. They both scored 16 points. And UNC was strong defensively, again, and held Syracuse to 40.9 percent shooting.
Afterward, amid a memorable victory Williams thought about loss. He thought about people he loved who were no longer around to experience this with him and his team.
“I really wish Stuart Scott was here tonight. I really wish Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge and my best friend in Chapel Hill, Ted Seagroves, was here,” Williams said, naming people close to him who’d died in the past year and a half. “It’s been a difficult year and a half because of all of that. They’re up there smiling somewhere and having a good time. Stuart is saying ‘Booyah,’ so I like that.”
Williams, meanwhile, might have most liked his team’s defensive performance, which he called “really good.” It was the kind of performance he’s grown accustomed to seeing during the past month. And in a lot of ways, what he saw against the Orange began a little more than a month ago with the senior night victory against Syracuse.
“I think that really showed how much we care for each other,” Pinson said, looking back to that win. “We didn’t want those seniors to go out with a loss on their senior night.”
They didn’t. And now another victory against Syracuse has the Tar Heels playing on the final night of the season, seeking their sixth NCAA championship.