Theo Pinson and the Tar Heels joke at postgame press conference
When it was over, after Marcus Paige had cut the last strand of net off the basket here, he put it around his neck and stepped down the ladder and ran toward his parents and his girlfriend, all waiting for him behind the North Carolina bench.
For most of his life he'd envisioned this moment and played the fantasy in his mind. Now after the Tar Heels' 88-74 victory against Notre Dame in the NCAA tournament East regional championship game the dream had become real life. The Tar Heels were Houston-bound, off to the Final Four.
“The best feeling in the world,” Ellis Paige, Marcus' father, said after he'd hugged his son. “It's something he's worked for ever since second grade, out there on the back court. Dreaming about playing at North Carolina, playing in the championship, playing in the Final Four.
“It's a dream come true so far. And I think we're not done.”
Indeed, the Tar Heels (32-6), who will be in the Final Four for the 19th time aren't finished. They'll play against Syracuse, which defeated Virginia earlier on Sunday, in a national semifinal next Saturday night in Houston.
UNC, though, savored a moment on Sunday here at the Wells Fargo Center that had been a long time coming. Six seasons had passed since the Tar Heels had last reached a Final Four. Some of them had been long seasons, filled with turmoil.
Others, for coach Roy Williams, had been defined by personal loss. For his program, the past two years had been among the most difficult in school history, for a variety of factors and reasons that Williams often describes as “the junk.”
When he joined his players on Sunday night on a stage to celebrate UNC's victory all Williams could say was this: “How about those Tar Heels?”
His voice was gone by then, hoarse from screaming, crackling with the emotion of the moment. Williams had found plenty of reasons to yell on Sunday, what with his team's defensive struggles in the first half against Notre Dame, and then when the Fighting Irish took the lead, briefly, in the second half.
That happened moments after senior forward Brice Johnson, in a moment of frustration after he was called for a foul, tossed the ball high over his head, toward the shot clock above the basket. Johnson was called for a technical foul and Notre Dame made a pair of free throws to cut UNC's lead to one.
Then the Fighting Irish (24-12) took a 52-51 lead on Bonzie Colson's layup with 13 minutes remaining. It was pivotal moment then. A defining moment. Notre Dame had scored the past 12 points of the game. And UNC, playing with a smaller lineup – Theo Pinson in for Johnson – responded by scoring the next 12 points.
“That's just how this 2016 team is,” said Marcus Paige, who finished with 13 points. “The 2015 Tar Heels might not have been able to respond from that. We had an 11-point deficit erased in no time. I look up and I'm like, 'Dang – we're down one. What just happened?'”
Then it was Notre Dame wondering the same after the Tar Heels, using their smaller, quicker lineup at that point, scored game's next 12 points, all of them in a span of less than two minutes. The stretch ended with Isaiah Hicks' alley-oop dunk off a lob from Pinson, the sophomore forward.
That was a defining moment, too – one that punctuated UNC's response to Notre Dame's run.
“I just ran – I ran out,” Hicks said. He didn't know whether he should slow down or continue his pursuit of the basket, and somewhere along the way he made the decision to keep on going.
“I knew it was coming,” he said of Pinson's pass. “All I had to do was look up.”
By the time Hicks finished that dunk the Tar Heels led 63-52 with nine minutes, 19 seconds remaining. From there Notre Dame, which tried to slow the game down in the first half but couldn't maintain that slower pace in the second, never trailed by fewer than eight points.
UNC's momentum-turning 12-0 run began, perhaps fittingly, with a layup from Paige. Before that play he said his told his teammates that “we didn't come this far just to come this far.”
“That was kind of thought of the day,” Paige said. “... It was the focal point of what coach said right before we went out, right before we prayed to go out. He was like, 'Guys – remember what we talked about: We didn't come this far just to come this far.'
“And I think that's kind of cool. You know I'm into quotes and all that kind of stuff, so I'm going to remember that one for a long time.”
The Fighting Irish hardly made it easy for UNC. Notre Dame shot nearly 60 percent in the first, and 55.1 percent overall. It tried to take control of the game with that 12-0 spurt on the second half – the one fueled, in part, by Johnson's technical foul.
The Tar Heels' size and rebounding ability, though, proved too much. UNC went small with great success against Notre Dame during UNC's 78-47 victory in the ACC tournament. And the Tar Heels had success going small, too, on Sunday night.
But it was their size that was the difference. Johnson, the 6-foot-10 forward, finished with 25 points and 12 rebounds. Kennedy Meeks, the 6-foot-10 junior, scored the first eight points of the second half and finished with 10 points – all of them after halftime.
The rebounding disparity was the primary statistical difference, though. UNC finished with twice as many rebounds overall (32-15) and the Tar Heels turned their 13 offensive rebounds into 23 second-chance points.
Williams afterward acknowledged the success he had going small at times. And yet he told his assistants at halftime: “I don't want to stay small.”
“Because had an advantage with size,” Williams said. “And the inside game should be an advantage.”
It was. After a competitive first half – eight ties, six lead changes – UNC controlled the final 13 minutes. The Tar Heels' lead grew as large as 17 points and their celebration began, finally, on their bench with less than a minute to play.
“It took us four years to do this,” Johnson said. “But hey – we're finally here.”
When he left the game with 34 seconds remaining Paige returned to the bench and looked behind it, to the first row of the seats, and made eye contact with his parents and his girlfriend. Meeks, meanwhile, raised waved his arms above his head, urging the crowd to make some noise.
Some players were jumping, anticipating the moment. The final buzzer sounded and for the second time in about two weeks – the first after their victory against Virginia in the ACC championship game – the Tar Heels found themselves on a makeshift stage, posing with a trophy.
About the only thing that went wrong, then, for UNC when Williams cut his hand while he cut down his piece of the net. He'd been left with enough scars the past few years – emotional, mental scars – what was one more?
“We had a problem,” Williams said, referencing the paper class scandal that has led to a prolonged NCAA investigation. “We're embarrassed, we're mad, we're ticked off about what happened … but the bottom line is I was able to go to practice every day. And my team has made it a heck of a lot of fun.
“I'd like that to be the story instead of the other junk.”
For his team, the story on Sunday night was not much unlike the story of the Tar Heels' late-season ascent: They were at their best when they needed to be, and they responded just when the challenge was its most difficult.
That point on Sunday came when Notre Dame took that one-point lead in the second half. Other UNC teams in recent seasons, as Paige said, might not have failed to respond. Even this UNC team, earlier in the season, might have failed amid that moment.
Yet these Tar Heels aren't those Tar Heels. The victory was especially emotional for Johnson and Paige, the two seniors and roommates whose primary goal this season was reaching a Final Four and winning a national championship. The first part of those goals became reality on Sunday night.
“It hasn't even hit me yet,” Marcus Paige said. “We talked about it as a major goal of ours in the beginning of the year. To actually be here, in the moment, is so much more special than I even imagined.
“It's all going so fast. My head's spinning. It's unreal, honestly.”
And yet it was real. The dream had come true. The Tar Heels were off to Houston.
North Carolina 88, Notre Dame 74
Syracuse 68, Virginia 62
Villanova (33-5) vs. Oklahoma (29-7), TBA (TBS)
Syracuse (23-13) vs. North Carolina (32-6), TBA (TBS)
Monday, April 4
Semifinal winners, TBA (TBS)