In the end, North Carolina was where it was supposed to be.
The Tar Heels started the season as the No. 1 team in the country. But unlike Roy Williams’ national championship teams in 2005 and 2009, this group took its own unique path.
This veteran UNC team, led by a pair of seniors in Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige, learned how to turn close calls and tough losses into big wins.
They overcame key early-season injuries and proved, without a doubt, they were tough on defense and mentally tough.
“We were able to stay composed in a hostile environment and show what this team is really made of,” Paige said after a 76-72 win at Duke on March 5 clinched the ACC’s regular-season title for the Tar Heels.
This UNC team lost more regular-season games (six) than any of the previous five NCAA championship teams, but the lessons learned from those losses were all worth it.
UNC began the season ranked No. 1, with 35 out of 65 first-place votes in the AP top 25, in part because of the experience and scoring ability of Paige.
Paige, a 6-1 point guard from Marion, Iowa, had blossomed into an All-ACC player as a sophomore in 2014 but was derailed by foot injuries in 2015.
He was healthy enough to help the Tar Heels reach the Sweet 16 in 2015, and averaged a team-best 14.1 points per game, but a variety of injuries wouldn’t let him be the same dominant player he was the year before.
At Operation Basketball in October, Paige was voted the preseason ACC player of the year (along with Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon). Both Paige and Williams declared Paige healthier than he had been at any point during his junior season. Then on Nov. 3, 10 days before the season opener against Temple, Paige fractured a bone in his right (non-shooting) hand.
Sophomore guards Joel Berry and Justin Jackson stepped up their scoring in Paige’s absence and the Tar Heels started 3-0.
A trip to Northern Iowa on Nov. 21, which was to be Paige’s “homecoming” game – a time-honored school tradition – turned into a 71-67 loss.
The Heels recovered to beat Northwestern and Kansas State to win the CBE Classic. Paige returned the next game and was spectacular, with 20 points in an 89-81 home win over Maryland on Dec. 1 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge in a matchup of top 10 teams.
Smooth January, trouble in February
UNC lost at the buzzer at Texas on Dec. 12 but finished its nonconference slate at 11-2. The Heels stormed out of the ACC gate with eight straight wins, including a perfect 7-0 record in January.
With Paige still fighting his shooting stroke, Johnson emerged as the team’s go-to player. The 6-9 senior forward put together one of the best games in ACC history, with 39 points and 23 rebounds in a 106-90 road win at Florida State on Jan. 4.
Johnson was rolling, leading the ACC in rebounding and double-doubles, while Berry saw his scoring average triple from his freshman season. Only one of UNC’s first eight ACC wins was decided by single digits, a 75-70 road win over Virginia Tech on Jan. 24.
But January, against teams mostly from the bottom half of the ACC, went a little too easy for the Tar Heels.
On Feb. 1, UNC dropped its first ACC game, 71-65 on the road to Louisville. The Cardinals’ tough defense held UNC to 34.5 percent from the floor and 17.6 percent (3 of 17) from the 3-point line.
Losing to a ranked team, with a hall-of-fame coach, on the road was not cause for alarm. Losing five days later at Notre Dame, after leading by 15 points in the first half, was a little more disconcerting. The Fighting Irish beat UNC at its own up-tempo game, scoring 50 points in the second half in an 80-76 decision.
A 68-65 road win over Boston College came next on Feb. 9 in a game that was treated almost like a loss. The Tar Heels had trailed the hapless Eagles, who finished the season winless in the ACC, by 6 points at the half and by 7 with 7:30 left in the game.
Williams actually missed most of the second half after collapsing from a vertigo bout during a timeout.
But behind Jackson, who had a game-high 20 points, UNC pulled out the late win for Williams, who was able to come out after the game and shake hands with Boston College coach Jim Christian and celebrate with his team.
The eventful close call at Boston College was nothing compared to a 74-73 home loss to Duke on Feb. 17. The Tar Heels lead for most of the game, behind a fast start by Johnson, but Duke erased an eight-point deficit in the game’s final 7 minutes.
Williams made a point to apologize to his team after he said he should have called a timeout, but didn’t, during a critical late sequence with the ball and a chance to win the game.
As difficult as that home loss to their rival was, UNC was better off for it. From the careless late-game defense, the Heels learned the intensity needed to close out good teams.
Plus, while UNC was tested in February, it was almost as if the Heels got the losses out of their system. Pre-NCAA tournament favorites Kansas and Michigan State cruised through the last two months of the regular season. Neither could respond in the NCAA tournament when they needed to. UNC had already been through enough to know how to handle big moments in big games.
UNC came right back three days later and swarmed a good Miami team, one that wound up in the Sweet 16, 96-71 at the Smith Center.
The Heels would lose once more in the month, by 5 points at Virginia on Feb. 27, but again, it took a loss to point out the small, off-the-ball hustle plays that UNC wasn’t making to learn from.
Come March, UNC was ready to start its title run both in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. It only needed the last two regular-season wins – at home to Syracuse, whom they would eventually beat in the Final Four – and a payback win at Duke.
Johnson had 21 rebounds to lead a dominant UNC performance on the glass – 64 to 29 – to give the Tar Heels a 76-72 win over the Blue Devils.
“Needless to say, it feels a heck of a lot better than it did a couple of weeks ago,” Williams said after the Duke win, a reference to the Duke home loss.
That was a feeling that wouldn’t go away for UNC.