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.”
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.”