Luke DeCock

For Tar Heels, it was always about Houston

It was never about this, about here. It was never about Philadelphia.

It was always about Houston.

And now that North Carolina has made it there, it’s all breaking the Tar Heels’ way.

Instead of Virginia, North Carolina will play 10th-seeded Syracuse for a shot at the national title after the Orange goaded the Cavaliers into an improbable meltdown in Sunday’s early game. Kansas is out, along with all the drama that would have provided. Oregon is out. The Tar Heels are the only No. 1 seed left standing, the only one to get to Houston.

The Tar Heels are back in the Final Four for the first time since winning the national championship in 2009, and after Sunday’s 88-74 win over Notre Dame, it’s North Carolina’s tournament to lose.

“The whole year, we were preseason No. 1, we had a lot of expectations, it was all about getting to Houston or it was a failure for our season, in my mind,” Marcus Paige said. “That's a lot of pressure and a lot of expectation, but we had a talented group and we handled everything that was thrown at us.”

Sunday, it was a technical foul on Brice Johnson that helped Notre Dame erase an 11-point deficit in a heartbeat. That's the Irish, a team that scored 17 points in four minutes to beat Wisconsin.

That's also North Carolina. The Tar Heels answered by scoring on 13 straight possessions to retake the lead and put the Irish away. Notre Dame had no answer for that.

North Carolina had all five starters in double figures for the second straight game. They didn't make a 3-pointer in the second half and still won by 14. Notre Dame had no answer for that, either.

And now, an unexpected third meeting with Syracuse, which went 0-1 at the ACC tournament but is 4-0 at the NCAA tournament. North Carolina beat Syracuse twice in the regular season, by 11 at the Carrier Dome and five at the Smith Center.

Of all the ACC teams in the tournament, the Orange was the least likely to make it this far. North Carolina was the most likely, rounding into form just before the ACC tournament, dispatching Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Virginia in Washington, and now tearing through the NCAA tournament, all four wins all by double-digits.

This is where the Tar Heels always expected to be, even if Syracuse wasn't the opponent they necessarily expected to face. It's the culmination of a four-year process since the injury-riddled 2012 team lost to Kansas in the regional final. Exit Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall and John Henson and Tyler Zeller. Enter Paige and Johnson and Joel James.

They went from second-round loss to second-round loss to third-round loss to the Final Four.

“I wanted it for Marcus and Brice and Joel,” a hoarse-voiced Roy Williams said. “I wanted it more for those kids than I ever wanted something in my life for someone else.”

With 34 seconds left, Paige gathered his teammates at the free-throw line, reminded them to finish the game, that crazy things can happen in the tournament. Joel Berry had a different message for Paige.

“Marcus came over and told me, 'Good job,' ” Berry said. “I said, 'We're doing this for you guys.' ... We did it for them. They've been through a lot these last four years.”

In the final moments, Williams pulled first Johnson and then Paige out of the game to loud ovations. On the bench, James lifted Johnson into the air. Then Johnson did the same to Paige. A four-year journey, finally complete. Almost. First, Syracuse. In Houston.

“Now it's about what we do in Houston,” Paige said.

It was never about Philadelphia. It was always about Houston. And now it’s only about Houston.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947,, @LukeDeCock

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