UNC’s Marcus Paige makes a birthday wish come true

By the time North Carolina took the floor to rousing cheers for its NCAA Tournament practice session Wednesday afternoon, one side of the lower bowl of PNC Arena was filled with Tar Heel faithful. As one fan at last week’s ACC Tournament in Washington, D.C., had noted, “It’s not a tournament until the Tar Heels arrive.”

Reva Bagwell, a high school senior from Asheville, got there plenty early, about 11:30 a.m., to stake out front-row seats for her and three family members – her cousin Alex Baker, 17; her brother Jeremiah, 24; and her grandfather Eugene Baker. Alex Baker said they hail from Fletcher, a town outside Asheville. “It makes a big difference if you’re from there,” he said.

Bagwell also had a hand-lettered sign that read, “My 18th birthday wish is to meet Marcus Paige.” Apparently the Tar Heels point guard saw the sign. “Hopefully he’ll come over,” Bagwell said.

The Asheville rooting section was only in town for the Tar Heels’ open practice session. “I can’t miss that much school,” Bagwell said. “But I’d like to stay.” She said they might try to get tickets for Saturday’s game if the No. 1-seeded Tar Heels (28-6) get past 16th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast (21-13) in Thursday’s first round.

About 20 minutes later, Bagwell’s birthday wish came true. Paige came over and signed her No. 5 jersey.

Courtside commentator: Dan Bonner, who captained the 1974-75 Virginia team during his playing days, is back for his 31st season calling the NCAA tournament. Bonner, who has been doing ACC games since the late 1970s when C.D. Chesley ran the show, has been working on the CBS crews for 26 years. The five years before that he spent with NCAA Productions, which aired the games on ESPN.

“Over the years I’ve been doing it, it’s become so much bigger an event,” Bonner said. “For example, nobody knew who Joe Lunardi was years ago.” If you’re not much of a college basketball aficionado, here’s a primer for you: Lunardi is the bracketologist for ESPN. He spends the entire season forecasting and handicapping who will be among the 68 teams invited to the NCAA Tournament, and an entire cottage industry has grown up around such prognostications.

“Who’s in and who’s not in, that builds up the event,” Bonner said. “It demonstrates the energy and interest people have in the tournament. It’s a social phenomenon now, not like it was 20 or 30 years ago.”

Bonner will be working on a broadcast team with play-by-play man Kevin Harlan, former Indiana Pacers star Reggie Miller and sideline reporter Lewis Johnson. Bonner had the luxury of a short commute this year to Raleigh from his home in Staunton, Va.

“If they would say to go to Pluto to do the games, I would do it,” Bonner said. “But I don’t mind being able to get in my truck and drive down.”

Dunk City redux: Florida Gulf Coast captured the fancy of college basketball fans three years ago when the Eagles became the only 15th seed in tournament history to reach the round of 16. Gulf Coast beat second-seeded Georgetown 78-68 and seventh-seeded San Diego State 81-71 in Philadelphia. Their Cinderella story ended in the Midwest Regional in Dallas, where they fell to Florida 62-50.

As an added level of serendipity, Andy Enfield, who led FGCU to the round of 16 in 2013, is here with his new team, Southern Cal.

Gulf Coast has already had a whirlwind trip. The Eagles flew from Fort Myers, Fla., on Monday to Dayton, Ohio, for the First Four, where they beat Fairleigh Dickinson 96-65 on Tuesday night. Then they flew here for their first-round game against No. 1 seed North Carolina.

Brian Rasnick, 43, who owns an insurance company back home in Florida and is the chairman of the Eagles Club advisory board, knows what FGCU is up against. He said he tried to find seats close to the floor for Wednesday’s open practice sessions but the lower bowl was full of Tar Heels fans.

“This is a home game for them,” said Rasnick, clad in an FGCU Eagles T-shirt. “I never saw so many fans for a shootaround. I was impressed.”

Rasnick remembers well the “Dunk City” excitement of three years ago. “It was my first year as chair,” he said. “I was in Philly late Friday night for the Georgetown game, figuring we would be flying home Saturday morning.” But when the Eagles put together a 21-2 second-half run that featured five rim-rattling dunks to pull away from a 31-31 tie, suddenly 17,000 fans became rabid FGCU supporters.

“They were all Villanova fans, and they hated Georgetown,” Rasnick said.

Can the Eagles make even more NCAA Tournament history and become the first 16th seed to take down a No. 1 seed?

“We all know the history of that,” Rasnick said. “But we’ve already won a game in the tournament, so we’re not nervous. I don’t think we’ll have the nerves of a 16 team out there.

“But if we upset (UNC) and play Southern Cal, the NCAA might have the highest rated game of all time.”

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