On to Houston. North Carolina will be making its 19th appearance in the Final Four after its 88-74 victory against Notre Dame on Sunday night here in the NCAA tournament East regional championship game.
Here's the story I wrote – a story about a moment a long time coming especially for Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson.
From columnist Luke DeCock, it's always been about Houston for these Tar Heels.
And then there was Theo Pinson. He was everywhere, at times, for UNC – even in the postgame press conference, for a change.
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And here I am on video talking this one out.
And, even better, some fantastic images from our Robert Willett.
As has been the custom here lately, some postgame thoughts, notes and quotes:
1. UNC responded when it faced its most significant challenge.
I'll be writing a more detailed story on this but here's the short version: Some of UNC's other teams in recent years might have “folded” – that's how Brice Johnson put it – when Notre Dame reeled off 12 consecutive points and took a one-point lead with 13 minutes to go. This UNC team, though, absorbed that blow and then scored 12 consecutive points of its own to push its lead back to 11. Notre Dame never seriously threatened again. That response – Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said UNC responded “like men” – is why the Tar Heels are headed to the Final Four. In the bigger picture, that response also personified this team's growth. Because Johnson was right: that was precisely the moment when UNC had faltered so many times before (though not lately). When faced with that moment this time, the Tar Heels scored on 13 consecutive possessions. By the time that streak came to an end, with about 3 ½ minutes to go, UNC led by 10 and the Tar Heels had the game in control at that point.
2. Tar Heels go small, at times, but its more traditional lineup was big.
Theo Pinson, the sophomore forward, provided a spark. UNC's small lineup provided a spark. Going small was an important part of a victory against Notre Dame, again, just as it was during the ACC tournament. And yet an equally big part of this victory for UNC was, well, remaining big. The Tar Heels began their most important run of the game – that 12-0 response to Notre Dame's 12-0 run – with their smaller lineup. UNC coach Roy Williams went to it after Brice Johnson's technical foul with a little less than 13 ½ minutes remaining. Less than two minutes later, though, UNC was back using a lineup with two big men – Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. At halftime Williams said he told his assistants: “I don't want to stay small, because we have an advantage with size.” That size helped UNC finish with a 32-15 rebounding advantage. UNC missed 20 shots from the field, rebounded 13 of them and turned those 13 offensive rebounds into 23 second-chance points. Notre Dame finished with six second-chance points. Statistically, that was the largest – and most important – discrepancy.
3. UNC received important contributions from pretty much everybody who played.
The Tar Heels have been balanced on this run to the Final Four and so it was again on Sunday at the Wells Fargo Center. All five starters scored in double figures, again, for the second consecutive game. And the three primary reserves – Isaiah Hicks, Theo Pinson and Nate Britt – all had valuable contributions, too. Pinson continues to provide energy and intensity that go beyond the box score, though he did finish with six points, four assists and two rebounds. And Hicks' alley-oop dunk – off a pass from Pinson – was among the most memorable plays of the game. And don't forget about Kennedy Meeks, who finished with 10 points – all in the second half. He has now scored in double figures on consecutive games for the first time since the end of November and beginning of December.
QUICK HITS …
--One of the more memorable moments I've had during my five seasons covering UNC basketball (has it been that long?) came after this game. Marcus Paige had just finished cutting the final strand off the net at one end of the court.
He worked his net around his neck, which took a minute or two. Then he stepped down the ladder and ran over to the seats behind the UNC bench, where his parents and sister and girlfriend were all there to greet him amid an emotional scene.
Said proud papa Ellis Paige: “It's the best feeling. It's something that 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.”
--You remember earlier this season when Roy Williams said that “Brice is still Brice?” Williams was talking about Brice Johnson's lapses. In consistency. In effort. In intensity. In playing intelligently. Johnson has mostly solved a lot of the “Brice is still Brice” problems.
His technical foul with a little less than 13 ½ minutes to play, though, was another one of those frustrating moments. Displeased after being called for a foul, Johnson tossed the ball high over his head, toward the shot clock at the top of the basket. Then came the whistle. Technical foul.
Said Johnson: “It was dumb. It was very, very dumb on my part. I really hurt my team in that moment and it's just something I have to learn from. I just got to not let my emotions get the best of me and just move on from it.”
--Paige after the victory wore one of the nets. Joel James, the senior forward, was wearing the other one. You might remember that Johnson and Paige both wore the nets after the ACC tournament championship game victory against Virginia. This time it was James' turn.
“I'll get the national championship one, though,” Johnson said. “When we get to that one. We get to cut those down, I'll take that one.”
Johnson, though, said he did get to keep the game ball. After 25 points and 12 rebounds and after earning the East Region MVP honors, it was his to keep. Though he wouldn't say where it was.
“It's over there somewhere,” he said. “I can't tell you where that is. I don't want nobody to take it.”
--Among the especially noteworthy #kirschnuggets from Steve Kirschner, the team's spokesman and sports information director: Tar Heels appearing in a Final Four for the eighth consecutive decade, which is a record. … UNC's 61.5 percent shooting was its best of the season, and best ever in an NCAA tournament regional final. ... Roy Williams now with more NCAA tournament victories at UNC (35) than he had at Kansas (34).