Emotions run higher than usual for UNC on senior night

Marcus Paige had said those three words before to his best friend and his roommate. He had told Brice Johnson that he loved him.

But there it came out again in the emotion of the moment on North Carolina’s senior night on Monday, in the minutes after the Tar Heels’ 75-70 victory against Syracuse. Paige stood on the Smith Center court, a microphone in his hand, addressing the crowd.

Except now he was addressing Johnson more than anyone.

“Brice, man – I love you, man,” Paige said in front of the thousands of people who remained in their seats to watch UNC’s seniors give their home farewells, as is the annual tradition. “You’re like the brother I never had. And I’m going to cherish that the rest of my life.”

Both Paige and Johnson will likely cherish what happened on Monday night for a long time to come, too. They won in their final home game, for one, and that had been an important goal. The way they won, though, might have made the experience more meaningful.

For a while it looked like the Tar Heels might be following a familiar script. They’d led by 13 points but had been unable to put the game out of reach. Syracuse kept cutting into UNC’s lead, and with about 2 ½ minutes to play the Tar Heels led 69-68.

Paige and Johnson had seen this show before: a large second-half lead down to almost nothing in the final minutes – the stage set for another devastating defeat. Except this time they helped write a new ending.

After Syracuse cut UNC’s lead to one, Paige penetrated and created an open layup for Isaiah Hicks. Not long after that, Johnson rebounded a missed shot in the lane and quickly scored to give the Tar Heels a 73-68 lead with 69 seconds remaining.

A few moments later, Paige committed a turnover that led to a Syracuse dunk but the Orange came no closer. UNC prevailed late, for a change, and won in a way that had eluded the Tar Heels when they’d recently found themselves in similar circumstances.

The emotional victory helped inspire emotional senior night commentary from Joel James, Johnson and Paige, all of whom seemed to be caught up in the moment at one point or another. James kept his comments short and said it’d been “a long four years.”

“But it’s been a great four years,” he said. “And I wouldn’t change it for the world.”

Johnson, whose mother died of cancer during his freshman year of high school, spoke first of his relationship with his father.

“Without him, I don’t know where I’d be,” Johnson said. “Hey, I love you, big dog.”

And then not long after it was Paige’s turn. He thanked his parents, his coaches. He told a story about UNC assistant coach C.B. McGrath “putting cheese on everything at our in-home visit.”

“Being weird like you are, man,” Paige said to McGrath. “I love you for that.”

When it came time to address his teammates, Paige spent most of his time describing his relationship with Johnson. Then came the emotional “I love you, man.”

Paige was asked later whether he’d ever said anything like that to Johnson before. Why he chose to say it there and then, again, in front of everyone after the final time he’d ever play in the Smith Center.

“It’s just that, we’re coming down the end of the road, man,” Paige said. “I’m going to miss that dude, so I’ve got to let him know.”

For nearly four years now, Paige and Johnson have done just about everything together. They arrived at UNC together and spent their first year living in a dorm along with James and J.P. Tokoto, another member of their incoming class who left school last season to begin his professional career.

Paige and Johnson have become especially close. Paige on Monday night described his relationship with Johnson like this:

“We’ve been right next to each other in the locker room the past four years. Sit next to each other in huddles for four years. We sit next to each other on the plane, except for this year. Now I sit in the big comfy chair in the front. Sit by each other on the bus, ride the bus to class together as freshmen. He drives me around in his Equinox, man. It’s just – it’s been a good four years with that man.”

It has but then again it hasn’t. Not always. Perhaps no senior class in UNC’s long, storied basketball history has experienced as much drama as this one. UNC’s seniors arrived on campus just in time to begin a rebuilding season after the departure of four players who became first-round NBA draft picks.

The start of their sophomore season was marred by the impermissible benefits case that affected the eligibility of former players Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston, who never again played in college. Then, before Paige’s junior season, came the release of the Wainstein report in October 2014.

James, Johnson and Paige have been witness to the most tumultuous period in program history. It has been a time of upheaval and change and uncertainty, a period in which the future basketball success – which for so long has been a given at UNC – is not guaranteed.

Both this season and last, UNC has played amid the uncertainty of what the fallout will be from a long-running scandal involving nearly two decades worth of bogus African Studies courses. The abuse of the those classes began before Paige and Johnson were born and ended years before they arrived at UNC.

And yet still they’ve had to answer questions about it all. They’ve been caught in the middle of a saga that will end, eventually, but that for now seems to be never ending. Williams on Monday night referenced what he has described as “the stuff” and “the junk.”

“It was extremely important to me for those three guys to go out with a win,” Williams said. “That team has been extremely important to me because of all the stuff that we’ve had to handle and it’s been very difficult.

“But every day we’ve gone out on the court and those guys have been there and they’ve sometimes very enthusiastically wanted me to help them, and sometimes not quite as enthusiastic. But I’ve loved coaching that team.”

Williams had told the crowd at the Smith Center that this might be his favorite team. He has coached more talented teams and more accomplished ones. And yet this one might be his favorite, he said, because of what it has provided him during this time of anxious uncertainty.

That’s why Williams felt the pressure on the way back from a loss at Virginia on Saturday night. He said on Monday he wasn’t sure he ever wanted to win a regular-season game as badly as the one against Syracuse, because he couldn’t endure the thought of his seniors losing their final home game.

Senior nights, Williams acknowledged, have “always been hard for me.”

“I want our crowd to cheer for an hour,” he said. “I want everybody to be freaking crying and show those kids how much they care for them.”

This senior night, though, was different. It was more difficult for Williams. There was more pressure to win. The stakes were higher, the desire greater to provide a positive home finale for a group of players who have encountered more negativity than they ever imagined they might when they decided to come to UNC.

“My four years,” Paige said, “have been absolutely nothing like I expected it to be.”

He clarified himself. His overall experience at UNC “has been a lot” of what he expected, Paige said. It was just all the other stuff that he never saw coming – the Hairston/McDonald drama and the lingering fallout of a long-running scandal and the questions that continue to surround Williams and his program.

Even UNC’s final home game didn’t go quite the way the seniors hoped. Paige missed eight of his 10 shots from the field. Johnson picked up two early fouls, had four points in the first half and entered halftime wearing an expression that drew Williams’ ire. He told Johnson to wipe it off his face.

He did and provided one of the game’s most important plays – a putback in the lane with about one minute remaining, which came after Paige’s important assist after Syracuse had cut UNC’s lead to one.

Eventually the Tar Heels prevailed. They gave their seniors the kind of ending they’d hoped to provide.

“It’s been a crazy ride,” Paige said of his college years, “and I think the most rewarding part is the fact that we still have a chance to do some really special things in my last year, to kind of close it the right way.”

UNC did that, at least, in its final home game on Monday night. It was a difficult, gritty victory, one that was ugly at times and in doubt in the final moments perhaps when it shouldn’t have been. It was a victory, though, befitting of a senior class that has often had to do things the hard way.