Entering North Carolina’s national championship game against Villanova on Monday night, seniors Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson had combined for 3,525 points, 1,421 rebounds and 728 assists.
Johnson had played in 147 games, and Paige in 140. Paige will leave UNC having started in all but two of the games he has played in, while the national championship game represents Johnson’s 80th career start.
It has been an evolution, and a long journey, for both players – and for Joel James, another senior who arrived at UNC in the same recruiting class as Johnson and Paige. Here’s a look back at the stories of Johnson, Paige and James:
BRICE JOHNSON: FROM ORANGEBURG TO ALL-AMERICAN
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Has a player ever progressed as much as Johnson did during his four years at UNC? When Brice Johnson arrived on campus, UNC coach Roy Williams feared that Johnson might not make it through the Tar Heels’ summer conditioning program.
Johnson doubted it, too, and thought about quitting and going home to Orangeburg, S.C. A phone call to his father changed things, though. Herman Johnson told his son to stick with it – not to give up. And so Johnson remained at UNC.
In his first season, he played a modest 10.6 minutes per game and averaged 5.4 points. During his sophomore season, Johnson emerged as one of UNC’s most efficient offensive players, and averaged 10.3 points in 19.4 minutes of playing time.
Still, though, Johnson’s defensive deficiencies and lack of intensity limited his playing time. Johnson became a regular starter during his junior season, starting all but one game and averaging 12.9 points.
And then came the breakthrough. Williams, who couldn’t have seen this coming, has maintained he always believed Johnson could become a great player. And Johnson did during his senior season.
The transformation began, perhaps, with a 10-rebound and career-high 25-point performance in a victory against Tulane on Dec. 16. Then Johnson surpassed it with 27 points in a victory against UCLA in Brooklyn on Dec. 19.
Months later, Johnson looked back at those two games as turning points for him, and performances that instilled confidence. It wasn’t long after when he scored 39 points and grabbed 23 rebounds during UNC’s 106-90 victory at Florida State on Jan. 4.
Through UNC’s Final Four 83-66 win over Syracuse, Johnson was averaging 17 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. He’d become a consensus All-American – UNC’s first since Tyler Hansbrough – and earned NCAA East regional MVP honors.
Johnson became the first UNC player to ever finish three consecutive NCAA tournament games with at least 20 points and 10 rebounds. He’s one of four UNC players – Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty and Antawn Jamison are the others – with at least 1,700 points and 1,000 rebounds and at least a 55 percent career shooting percentage.
MARCUS PAIGE: THROWN INTO THE FIRE FROM THE START
Growing up in Marion, Iowa, Marcus Paige imagined himself playing at North Carolina. Vince Carter was his favorite player. The Tar Heels his favorite team. UNC, Paige has often said, was his dream school.
When Paige decided to commit to UNC, he thought he had it all figured out: During his freshman season he’d back up Kendall Marshall, who rewrote UNC’s records for assists. And then, if Marshall left school after his junior year, Paige would take over at point guard.
Or so Paige thought. Marshall wound up leaving school a year earlier than Paige and coach Roy Williams expected, which meant Paige, who showed up at UNC weighing about 155 pounds, would be the Tar Heels’ starting point guard from the first day he stepped on campus.
It wasn’t exactly what Paige had been hoping for. He was looking forward to learning from Marshall, one of the most decorated point guards in school history. All of a sudden, however, Paige found himself responsible for running UNC’s offense.
That first season came with plenty of growing pains, especially against bigger, stronger players. Paige started 34 of UNC’s 35 games and averaged 8.2 points.
The next season, Paige anticipated having more help in the backcourt. P.J. Hairston, coming off a strong finish to his sophomore season, was expected to be among the best offensive players in the ACC.
But Hairston, it turned out, had played his final college game. He left school amid an impermissible benefits investigation, leaving Paige, again, without the kind of support he envisioned. This time Paige was better prepared to bear the burden.
He often single-handedly carried the Tar Heels’ offense and averaged 17.5 points in his sophomore season. One of his most memorable performances came when he scored 35 points – two of them on the game-winning layup at the buzzer – in an overtime victory at N.C. State.
In some ways Paige’s sophomore season has haunted him since. He set the bar so high that season, and the expectation was for him to duplicate that success again and again. It hasn’t happened that way.
Injuries derailed part of Paige’s junior season, yet he still averaged 14.1 points and provided some memorable moments – including the game-winning layup, at the buzzer, at home against Louisville.
Another injury, a broken bone in his right hand, forced Paige to miss the first six games this season. Since his return, he has played almost exclusively at shooting guard, a role Paige has embraced even though it’s not his natural position. Paige will leave UNC as one of the most beloved players in school history, and he’ll be remembered among the Tar Heels’ great leaders.
He is a three-time academic All-American and was an All-American on the court during his sophomore season. Along with Duke’s Jason Williams, Paige is one of two players in ACC history with 1,800, 500 assists, 350 rebounds, 275 3-pointers and 200 steals.
JOEL JAMES: AN IMPROBABLE JOURNEY
Joel James didn’t start playing basketball until he was 15, when he walked into a youth center in his rough, crime-ridden neighborhood in West Palm Beach, Fla. Basketball became something of a salvation for him.
James was raw but he had things that couldn’t be taught. Size, for one. And strength. And an unquantifiable work ethic, one that allowed him to rise above his meager surroundings and become a major college basketball prospect.
James arrived at UNC as perhaps the most inexperienced player that coach Roy Williams ever recruited. Asked about it recently, Williams couldn’t remember recruiting another player who didn’t start playing basketball until his sophomore year of high school, like James did.
During his four years at UNC, James has been the consummate role player, one who has been counted on to provide depth in the front court. James, considerably raw when he first arrived, has developed an effective low post game, and he scored a quick four points in six minutes in UNC’s 83-66 victory against Syracuse on Saturday night in the national semifinals.
The most memorable part of James’ time at UNC, though, has been the journey itself. He didn’t have a bed to sleep in before he arrived in college. He grew up in an area where crime and drug abuse are common realities – in a neighborhood that James’ sister, Kia, described as “impoverished” in a recent interview.
And here James is. He’ll graduate with a degree in history. He has been a member of various NCAA, ACC and UNC leadership councils. And he has become one of Williams’ favorite players – and for reasons that have little to do with what James has done in games.