(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.”

Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

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Regional Finals – Sunday, March 26

2:20 p.m.,CBS, New York
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 4 Florida (Verne Lundquist, Jim Spanarkel, Allie LaForce)

5:05 p.m., CBS, Memphis
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kentucky (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Steve Alford: ‘I’m very happy at UCLA’

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UCLA head coach Steve Alford was still processing an 86-75 season-ending loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Friday night when he had to answer questions about another blueblood program.

Sine the dismal of Tom Crean at Indiana, Alford has been one of the names rumored to be in the mix for the coaching vacancy. A reporter in the press conference in Memphis didn’t even get a chance to finish his question before Alford cut him off and a publicly state that he was happy in Westwood.

“I said it last week, and I’ll reiterate it again even more so, I guess, that I love Los Angeles,” Alford said. “To begin with, it’s a beautiful place, and our family has fallen in love with it. I’ve got two sons now, Kory first and now Bryce, that have graduated. Bryce is done, so he’s graduating from UCLA, so I’ve got two sons that are graduates from there, a daughter that loves the school she’s going to in Thousand Oaks. I’m very happy. I’m at UCLA. I don’t know of a lot of people that are out there wanting to leave UCLA.

“This is a pretty special place. We’ve worked awfully hard. Our staff has worked hard. We’ve got the No. 2 recruiting class coming in next year. We’re opening a brand-new, state-of-the-art, 60-plus million practice facility, Mo Ostin Center, that is going to be spectacular that we’ve worked awfully hard to be a part of that, and I want to see that through, and we’ve got some special kids that are coming to join us.

“I’m very, very happy where I’m at, and hopefully, that’ll continue.”

Alford won a national championship with the Hoosiers in 1987, scoring more than 2,400 points in his career under head coach Bob Knight. He has been with UCLA since 2013, reaching the Sweet 16 in three of his four seasons with the Bruins.

Crean was fired on March 16 after nine season in Bloomington.

Lonzo Ball has officially declared for the 2017 NBA Draft

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Following a season-ending loss in the Sweet 16 of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, UCLA freshman point guard unsurprisingly announced that he will enter the NBA Draft.

“That was my final game for UCLA. I appreciate the fans,” Ball told reporters.

The 6-foot-6 point guard has a strong case to be the No. 1 overall pick. It could be almost too enticing for the Los Angeles Lakers to pass on a Southern Cal product if the ping pong balls fall in their favor. New Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka were in Memphis for Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky.

Ball, in an All-American freshman season with the Bruins, averaged 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and a nation’s best 7.6 assists per game, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 42 percent from three.

He ended his college career with an 86-75 loss to the Wildcats, scoring 10 points, off 4-of-10 shooting, with eight assists.

VIDEO: Florida’s Chris Chiozza beats Wisconsin at the buzzer

Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
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NEW YORK — So you didn’t think the NCAA Tournament had enough excitement this year?

Wisconsin and Florida solved that problem for you.

The Badgers started things, as they erased a 12-point deficit in the final 4:15 to force overtime, a stretch that included an 8-0 run at the end of regulation that was capped by a Zak Showalter running three with 2.5 seconds left on the clock to tie the game at 72.

Wisconsin jumped out to a lead in overtime, but the combination of an inability to make free throws and and this epic chasedown block from Canyon Barry left the door open for the Gators, who eventually won the game on this running three from Chris Chiozza:

What.

A.

Game.

If we get a better one than this, I just hope I’m courtside for it.

KeVaughn Allen led the way for the Gators with 35 points, and no one else on the Gators scored more than eight points, but it didn’t matter. The Gators are still headed to the Elite 8, and Mike White will have a chance to play for the right to go to the Final Four in his first NCAA Tournaments.

Replacing a legend like Billy Donovan was never going to be easy, but White is doing an admirable job.

The other subplot here: With the win, Florida becomes the third member of the SEC in the Elite 8, and with a regional final against South Carolina on Sunday afternoon, it guarantees that there will be at least one SEC team in the Final Four.

While there were celebrations in the Florida locker room, Wisconsin’s was one of devastation.

The Badgers started four seniors, including tournament stalwarts Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes, who played in their 17th career NCAA Tournament games.

Hayes had 22 points, but he’s going to be haunted by the free throws he missed. He was 7-for-14 from the line on the night, including four missed freebies in overtime. The end was similarly heart-breaking for Koenig, as he was a non-factor in overtime due to an injury he suffered on the possession before Showalter’s game-tying three.

Both of them are going to spend years thinking ‘What if?’ That’s how the NCAA Tournament works.

Everyone leaves in tears, either because they’re cutting down the nets at the Final Four or because their season — their career — just came to an end.

Hayes and Koenig were no different.

VIDEO: Canyon Barry saves Florida with epic chase down block

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Florida’s Canyon Berry had the best chase down block since LeBron James in the 2016 NBA Finals.

It kept Wisconsin’s lead at two points and gave the Gators a chance to tie and, eventually, win the game.

Look at this: