Of all the things Marcus Paige is going to miss about Brice Johnson, “having to calm him down after great plays and epic runs and crazy dunks and screams” is the thing Paige might miss the most.
“I’ll never get to do that anymore,” Paige, the North Carolina guard, said Sunday.
Well, he’ll get to do it for one more game, at least. At last, Paige and Johnson, two Tar Heels seniors, will reach the end of their college basketball journey Monday night in the NCAA tournament championship game against Villanova.
And so Paige thought about this moment and this stage – the last he’d share with Johnson, his teammate and roommate and close friend. He would miss having to calm the excitable, emotional Johnson. But it was hardly the only thing.
“We’ve had a lot of good times, man,” Paige said. “Off the court, on the court. Living together for four years.”
Four years of games and road trips, of plane rides and bus rides, of practices, of “hanging out in the hotels,” Paige said, and “yelling at each other in huddles,” and “trying to get each other going at halftimes,” and – “Sorry,” Paige said, feeling like he was rambling. “I got carried away.”
Down a hallway in the bowels of NRG Stadium, where the Tar Heels (33-6) and Wildcats (34-5) will play Monday night in front of about 75,000 people, Johnson kept his thoughts more succinct. He’s become something of a talker these days, too, but this sort of emotional stuff has never been for him.
And so what would he miss about Paige?
“Having him out there,” Johnson said. “ He’s a great dude and he’s like a brother.”
Paige has played in 140 games the past four seasons. Johnson in 147. And now their number is down to one. That’s how many college games they have left.
Before now – before UNC’s 83-66 victory against Syracuse on Saturday night in the national semifinals – Johnson and Paige didn’t know how many games they had left. Their entire tournament run has been about extending their college playing days one game at a time.
And now the end has arrived, win or lose.
“When you’re playing in the national championship game of your senior year, there’s no tomorrow,” Paige said. “This is it, no matter what. No matter how bad I’d like to put the jersey on one more time.”
Paige and Johnson have been around long enough to seem like permanent fixtures at UNC. Or as permanent as anything can seem in the revolving-door world of college basketball.
They arrived together, have lived together and grown up together. Their numbers – Paige’s No. 5 and Johnson’s No. 11 – will hang together in the Smith Center rafters. Their hope is that a 2016 national championship banner will hang from the opposite side of those rafters.
All along, that’s what has driven Paige and Johnson: the idea of winning a national championship in their final college game. And now the opportunity is here, as they envisioned it would be before the season began.
Still it was “weird,” C.B. McGrath, one of UNC’s assistant coaches, said on Sunday – the realization that Monday night was it for Johnson and Paige. McGrath said he’d miss how Johnson could always coax a smile from coach Roy Williams. And Paige? McGrath would miss “his stability.”
“(He) makes us as coaches just feel OK,” McGrath said.
Everyone inside the Tar Heels’ locker room on Sunday could share something like that – something they’d miss about Johnson and Paige after this run reaches its end. Isaiah Hicks, the junior forward, already was wondering what he’d do without having a chance to practice against Johnson.
And then there were the stories, too, that Johnson provided. Have you heard the one about snorkeling? Hicks wasn’t around to witness it, he said, but nonetheless it has been passed around over the years.
“Brice said he could swim … and basically he had a snorkel,” Hicks said, “and he tried to breathe under the water with the snorkel. So that was pretty funny.”
Then there was Joel Berry, the sophomore point guard. He said he owed a lot of his development to Paige and the guidance he provided – the kind that Paige expected to receive from Kendall Marshall four years ago.
Marshall, though, was off to the NBA by the time Paige arrived on campus for his freshman season. And so Paige was left to learn a lot of things on his own. Berry, however, said he “knew what was coming” because Paige had told him.
“It’ll be kind of emotional seeing him put on that jersey and take off that jersey for the last time,” Berry said.
It’ll be emotional for Paige and for Johnson. For their teammates.
For Williams, too. He’s grown close – closer than usual, perhaps – with both players.
Paige over the years has been an on-court extension of Williams. And Johnson, Williams said Sunday, has progressed as much in the past four years as any player he has ever coached.
This point in the season, Williams said, “kills me every year.” It’s the knowledge that he’ll never coach a particular group of seniors ever again.
Rarely, though, is the end point so defined. Four times in his head coaching career Williams has entered a game knowing that he’ll never coach that particular group of players again.
He knew that entering the national championship game in 2009 and in 2005 and, during his tenure at Kansas, in 2003 and in 1991. And now here it is again but the feeling is different because his relationship with this team, and with Johnson and Paige, in particular, is different.
“These two guys have been a savior to me,” Williams said. “(I’m) not trying to be too dramatic.”
Johnson and Paige, Williams said, had led the way through “some very difficult time periods.”
“With people questioning me and my integrity and the credibility of our program and everything,” Williams said. “And they’ve allowed me to continue doing my job and loving it.
“And I think if it hadn’t been those two, particularly, but the influence they’ve had on the others, I don’t think I would have loved coaching as much as I’ve loved it these last two years.”
And now there’s one final game.
“It’s been so much fun,” Paige said at one point, looking back. “I’m getting nostalgic thinking about all this stuff.”