North Carolina's Brice Johnson reacts during the second half of a regional final men's college basketball game against Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament, Sunday, March 27, 2016, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Chris Szagola)
(AP Photo/Chris Szagola)

No. 1 North Carolina advances to Final Four by beating No. 6 Notre Dame

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PHILADELPHIA — When Marcus Paige — native Iowan, midwesterner through and through — signed his Letter of Intent to play at North Carolina, the Tar Heels were the No. 1 team in the country. That was the year that Anthony Davis was carrying Kentucky to a national title, when a little itty-bitty broken bone in Kendall Marshall’s wrist was the difference between the Tar Heels getting a shot at cutting down the nets and going as far as Stillman White would carry them.

Paige figured that would be the norm, that he would play a role for two years before starting as a junior and a senior, winning titles and getting to Final Fours and doing everything that you would expect one of the nation’s premier basketball programs to do.

Only, that’s not the way that it played out. The Tar Heels didn’t get out of the first weekend the first two years that Paige was in Chapel Hill. They didn’t get out of the Sweet 16 his junior year. They had never won an ACC title before this year.

And that became a problem when it came time to cut down the net after Carolina’s 88-74 win over No. 6 seed Notre Dame sent the Tar Heels to the Final Four in Houston.

Because Marcus Paige, Leader of Men in Carolina Blue, didn’t know how to put the net around his neck.

“It just looked weird,” junior guard Nate Britt said with a laugh after the game. “I was just like, ‘Flip it! Flip it before the cameras get you!’ He tried to switch it.”

“I don’t think it worked.”

“This is only my second one,”. Paige said. “So I’m getting better.”

“Hopefully by the third time I’ll have it down.”

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We knew it was coming. Notre Dame had not only managed to make a miracle comeback to win each of their first three NCAA tournament games, but the win they had landed over then-No. 2 North Carolina back in February had been the result of the Irish erasing a 15-point lead.

That’s what this team does. It ain’t luck when it happens over and over again.

Notre Dame rode the pluck of the Irish to the Elite 8, and you better believe that wasn’t going to change on Easter Sunday.

Which is why no one in the building should have been surprised when Notre Dame, outsized and down 51-40 with star point guard Demetrius Jackson limping around on a freshly rolled ankle, hit the Tar Heels with a 12-0 run to take their first lead of the second half. And if that had been the end of it, if Notre Dame had gone on to upset the No. 1 seed in the East Region, no one would have been surprised.

Because if Notre Dame’s rep was that of the never-say-die scrapper, North Carolina’s M.O. for much of the season — for the majority of the last two years — had been that of a team that couldn’t win a big game. Choke artists may be too strong of a word, but you didn’t have to look hard to find someone criticizing UNC for their inability to win big games. Toughness, the narrative said, was something lacked, both mentally and physically, and a pair of bonehead mistakes — Kennedy Meeks’ turnover when he convinced himself he was a point guard, and Brice Johnson’s decision to get a technical foul — only reinforced what we were all thinking:

The comeback was coming.

And that’s precisely when the Tar Heels answered.

Marcus Paige sparked and Isaiah Hicks, in emphatic fashion, capped a 12-0 run of their own, giving the Heels a 63-52 lead they would never relinquish en route to win that would send the Heels, this senior class, to the Final Four.

“To actually be here, in the moment, is so much better than I imagined,” Paige said after scoring 13 points in the regional final. “This year, when we started losing a couple games, people started questioning us saying basically it’s the same team as last year. We don’t have what it takes. Don’t get too excited. They were overrated to start the season. To fight that, all the toughness remarks, fight all the experts — one out of 31 ESPN experts picking us — it’s been a special ride, man.”

What makes it that much more special for this group is that they’ve been the kids that have had to deal with the torrent of criticism that has come with the NCAA’s investigation into an academic scandal that began before they were born.

The Tar Heels will be at the center of the biggest subplot to this year’s Final Four. Their athletic department had spent 18 years taking full advantage of fraudulent classes that were being offered in the African American studies major, and they’ll square off in the Final Four against a Syracuse program that self-sacrificed last year’s postseason to try and appease their NCAA overlords.

I’m not here to argue about the merits of either investigation or to try and parse through the details regarding the involvement of the two Hall of Fame head coaches that have had their good names tarnished. That’s a different story for a different day. What is inarguable, however, is that the kids on the current rosters have been the ones that have had to deal with it all.

The media scrutiny. The jeers from opposing fans. The pressure, at North Carolina, that comes with potentially being the last Roy Williams’ coached team that will be eligible to make it this far in March.

It’s not something that they signed up for.

Which is what makes this breakthrough so special.

“I didn’t want this for myself,” Roy Williams said, tears in his eyes as he watched workers at the Wells Fargo Center ready a ladder for him to cut down the nets. “I wanted this for Marcus, Brice and Joel. That’s who I wanted it for.”

“They stuck, they trusted me, they believed in me. Not all the BS that’s been around, the sensationalism and everything. I’ve never wanted anything for someone else as much as I wanted this for those guys.”

VIDEO: University of New Orleans aids area flood victims

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After over 20 inches of rain fell over three days and over 60,000 homes were damaged in southeastern Louisiana, New Orleans coach Mark Slessinger called his acquaintance, John Derenbecker, in the area to check in. Derenbecker and his family were fine, Slessinger learned, but many in the area were not.

I told (Derenbecker) to figure out who needed the help the most,” Slessinger told the New Orleans Times-Picayune, “that I had my whole crew who could come help out on Saturday and Sunday.”

That led Slessinger and his team to the home of an elderly couple, Elbert and Ione Norred, whose house was ravaged by over four feet of flood water. The Privateers helped slog out debris, cut away wet insulation and whatever else needed removing from the soaked home.

“I appreciate everything you have done,” Ione Elbert told the Privateers. “Nobody knows how long it would have taken us to have done this.”

The Red Cross estimates that the relief effort for the flooding could cost upwards of $30 million in the region. To make a donation to the organization call 1-800-RED CROSS.

UNO’s baseball team also got in on the aid effort, heading to Baton Rouge over the weekend.

“We are proud to see our student-athletes, coaches and staff serve our fellow Louisianians in their time of need,” UNO Director of Athletics Derek Morel said in a statement. “The men and women of our program understand the importance of serving others and using our resources to help those in less-fortunate situations. We will continue to play for neighbors.”

Rutgers land 7-foot grad transfer from UNC Wilmington

PROVIDENCE, RI - MARCH 17:  Brandon Ingram #14 of the Duke Blue Devils drives to the basket as he is defended by C.J. Gettys #23 of the North Carolina-Wilmington Seahawks in the second half of their game during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Dunkin' Donuts Center on March 17, 2016 in Providence, Rhode Island.  (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
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Rutgers landed a commitment from seven-footer C.J. Gettys on Monday night.

Gettys is a graduate transfer from UNC-Wilmington, where he averaged 5.3 points, 5.1 boards and 1.4 blocks for a team that reached the NCAA tournament. Gettys is a slow-footed back-to-the-basket player, however, and that didn’t exactly fit with the way that UNCW head coach Kevin Keatts likes to play; think Shaka Smart’s VCU teams.

So Gettys opted for Rutgers, picking the Scarlet Knights over Dayton, Purdue and Chattanooga.

He is the fifth member of new head coach Steve Pikiell’s first recruiting class.

VIDEO: Seventh Woods dunks on UNC student

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Some poor UNC student decided that he was going to try and block Seventh Woods, a freshman point guard for the Tar Heels, on a dunk attempt.

What ended up happening was that he got windmilled on.

To quote Samuel L. Jackson, as portrayed the great philosopher Dave Chappelle, “You ain’t never seen my movies?” Woods was doing this as a freshman … in HIGH SCHOOL.

Former National Player of the Year Michael Brooks dies at 58

Brooks for All-American Brochure
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A Philadelphia basketball legend and a former National Player of the Year passed away on Monday night.

Michael Brooks, a 6-foot-7 forward who was named the NABC National Player of the Year in 1980, died in Switzerland on Monday night due to a massive stroke, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.

He was just 58 years old.

Brooks finished his career with 2,628 points and 1,372 rebounds. He never averaged less than 20 points in his four seasons in college. (Think about that for a second.) He was the No. 9 pick in the 1980 NBA Draft and averaged double-figures for four years before season-ending knee injuries sent him to Europe to play. Brooks was also named the captain of the 1980 Olympic team that missed out on the Moscow games due to the USA’s boycott.

Brooks, according to the Inquirer, had aplastic anemia, which required him to receive a bone marrow transplant last week. His body rejected the marrow, which resulted in the strokes that ended his life.

UCLA cruises in opener on Australian tour

UCLA head coach Steve Alford, second from right, watches action against Cal Poly with his assistant coaches in the first half of an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Michael Baker)
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UCLA, who will be the most interesting team in all of college basketball this season, played their first game of an Australian tour on Tuesday morning, and they won in pretty impressive fashion.

The Bruins had triple digits on the board early in the fourth quarter, eventually beating a club in Sydney by the score of 123-76. For comparison’s sake, Washington and potential No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz beat the same team 101-80 a couple of weeks ago, so the win and the margin of victory is somewhat impressive.

Also worth noting: None of UCLA’s freshmen started. Steve Alford rolled with Aaron Holiday, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton on the perimeter — Holiday and Hamilton combined for 27 points, 18 assists and 11 boards while Alford had 17 points on just 10 shots — with G.G. Golomon and Thomas Welsh up front.

But the noteworthy performances here were from the McDonald’s All-Americans that Steve Alford brought into the program. In his first game in the blue and gold, Lonzo Ball, a potential top ten pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, was just OK. He finished with nine points and four assists while shooting 3-for-9 from the floor. Leaf, however, was terrific, as he led the team with 21 points to go along with nine boards and three assists.

The first exhibition game is hardly a great way to predict how a season is going to play out, but given the pressure and expectations currently surrounding the program, everything the Bruins do this season is going to be scrutinized.

This isn’t a bad way to start.