Marcus Paige was elated, smiling and jumping across the floor. Brice Johnson couldn’t hold it back. He bent over, crying, held upright by teammate Kennedy Meeks.
If there’s one thing North Carolina’s seniors haven’t experienced in their time in Chapel Hill, it’s this kind of joy – not only the feeling of winning at Duke for the first time or securing their first tangible accomplishment, but the sense that four years of struggle and frustration might finally be behind them.
For the third straight time, North Carolina held a late lead against Duke. For the third straight time, the Blue Devils asked of the Tar Heels everything they had, pushed them to the edge. Saturday, the Tar Heels finally had the answer, not to mention an entirely new set of emotions to process.
“It’s definitely more than just Duke,” Johnson said. “It’s four years of all the stuff we’ve been through. It’s been rough for all of us.”
Of all people to lock down the 76-72 win, it was Paige, suffering through a disappointing senior season and another difficult shooting night, making all four of his free throws in the final 9 seconds. Only then did all the weight – of three previous seasons without a banner, of the endless NCAA enquiry into the academic scandal, of the expectations this team has faced – begin to lift.
Not only did North Carolina win at Cameron Indoor Stadium for the first time since 2012, but thanks to Virginia Tech’s earlier upset of Miami, the Tar Heels claimed the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament and the outright regular-season title.
“You try not to let that affect you, but we’ve been through hell for four years in terms of the entire thing outside of playing basketball,” Paige said. “And we’re also one of the few groups that didn’t have a ring at this point. To win a championship, it all just started pouring out.”
Dominant on the glass – 27-21 at their own basket, 37-8 at the other end – and inside with Duke’s Brandon Ingram mired in foul trouble, the Tar Heels overcame an all-too-typically poor outside shooting night and an entirely predictable late Duke surge.
It wasn’t the 3-pointers North Carolina missed – the Tar Heels were a combined 5-for-36 from 3-point range in the two games against Duke – but the one Joel Berry made with 4:37 to play that restored North Carolina’s lead to seven and gave the Tar Heels the cushion to finish it out.
Theo Pinson, Berry and Paige were 8-for-8 from the free-throw line in the final minute, and North Carolina needed all of them as Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard kept bombing 3-pointers at the other end.
“Paige, those are not easy free throws, especially after the 3s hit, we get it down to two,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “For that kid to step up there, that’s a hell of a thing for that kid. And he’s a hell of a kid.”
Unlike the overtime loss here last season, unlike February’s fade in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels closed this one out.
The toughness of this team, so often questioned, was thoroughly tested. And it passed.
“The second trip to the line, I knew it was over,” Paige said. “As soon as I got the ball with a second and a half left, I knew I was knocking those down. And it started to sink in that after all we’ve been through, we finally got over the hump.”
Coming into Saturday, Stilman White was the only North Carolina player to know the feeling of winning at Cameron – a long way from the days when Tyler Hansbrough made it his home away from home. Other North Carolina teams have won regular-season titles since then, but without winning the tournament or going to the Final Four.
That’s all still ahead for this team, but Hansbrough was there watching Saturday as this senior class exorcised the demons of the first loss to the Blue Devils, secured its first championship of any kind and showed real progress toward making some history of its own.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, email@example.com, @LukeDeCock