Experienced, Explosive UNC Heading to Final Four as the Clear Title Favorite

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterMarch 28, 2016

Mar 27, 2016; Philadelphia, PA, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels head coach Roy Williams celebrates with his team after defeating Notre Dame Fighting Irish in the championship game in the East regional of the NCAA Tournament at Wells Fargo Center. Carolina won 88-74. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

PHILADELPHIA — The Virginia meltdown against Syracuse was on the television in North Carolina's locker room Sunday night, and Marcus Paige demanded that the television go off.

"This is about us," Paige told his teammates, hours before they would get their own season-defining test and come out victorious, 88-74 versus Notre Dame. "We've seen enough basketball to know whatever happens we're going to have to deal with. None of that matters if we're going home."

The bipolar nature of this NCAA tournament—from Northern Iowa's calamity to Virginia's collapse against Syracuse—was ready to sink its teeth into the lone No. 1 seed remaining Sunday. The Heels were in complete control until senior star Brice Johnson, frustrated by two straight calls that had gone against him, tossed the ball up over his head.

As soon as the ball hit the top of the backboard, official Michael Stephens hit Johnson with a technical foul. Sixteen seconds later, the Irish took the lead.

From left to right: Bonzie Colson, Brice Johnson, Zach Auguste, Isaiah Hicks
From left to right: Bonzie Colson, Brice Johnson, Zach Auguste, Isaiah HicksBob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

"I made a bone-headed mistake," Johnson said afterward. "They went on a run."

But Paige gathered his team again and told them "it's a game of runs." And nobody runs like the 2015-16 Tar Heels.

Johnson's teammates had his back to the tune of scoring on 13 straight possessions following his technical foul, and March Sadness was no match for the experienced, overwhelmingly talented Tar Heels.

The win that sent the tournament's new favorite, North Carolina, to its first Final Four since 2009 was an absolute clinic—from the precision of the offense to the way the Heels answered Johnson's mishap.

It was proof that, even in the one-and-done era of college hoops, experience still matters.

"[Last year's] team probably would have folded up because we didn't know how to close games that year and we were very young," Johnson said. "But hey, we've been through it all. We've been through situations like that, and we've got guys that are experienced and know we've got to play with poise."

Marcus Paige
Marcus PaigeStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

The Heels were within sniffing distance of the Final Four last year when they led eventual national runner-up Wisconsin by seven points midway through the second half of the Sweet 16.

Both Johnson and Marcus Paige didn't think twice about leaving for the NBA—both would have been drafted—and returned to play deeper into March.

The Heels opened this campaign as preseason No. 1. But Paige broke a bone in his hand before it even started, and the team didn't live up to expectations early on.

North Carolina won the ACC outright, but questions circled as the postseason began. Kennedy Meeks had a late-season slump, and Paige's jumper had abandoned him.

Paige's misfortune was almost a blessing for the Heels, as Johnson emerged as the go-to guy and unleashed his unstoppable turnaround jumper and gravity-defying theatrics in the lane. And other Heels had their chance to take big shots in big moments, something only Paige had done in the past.

So when North Carolina's new superstar, Johnson, went to the sideline Sunday night because of his technical, there wasn't a panic.

Paige hit a pull-up jumper on the baseline, followed by Theo Pinson stripping Bonzie Colson and calling timeout after he dove on the floor. That's when Paige gave his "game of runs" speech. Paige, Pinson and Isaiah Hicks (Johnson's replacement) combined to go on a 12-0 run thereafter.

Theo Pinson
Theo PinsonStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

That's the nightmare of facing the Heels. The leading scorer goes out, and two McDonald's All-American bench guys (Pinson and Hicks) take over.

Pinson and Hicks could be stars elsewhere, but they've embraced waiting their turn.

"Of course you want to come and play a lot, but at the same time, I knew what I was getting myself into," Pinson said. "There are a lot of good players here as you can see. My main focus was to do what we're doing right now—Final Four and a chance for the national championship. If I went to any other school, I wouldn't have had that chance because they're not as good as we are."

Roy Williams has also had the good fortune of landing guys who aren't one-and-done talents—not that he hasn't tried—and been blessed with college stars who were willing to wait for the paycheck.

It just took more time for the payoff to come to fruition than it has with some of his past teams. This senior class didn't make it past the first weekend of the tournament their first two years in Chapel Hill.

"It's a progression, and everyone doesn't realize that Brice was not a McDonald's All-American out of high school," Williams said. "He's a kid whose worked his tail end off and turned himself into one of the best players in America. Marcus had limitations. People didn't believe in him, but he's done so many great things for us.

Roy Williams
Roy WilliamsStreeter Lecka/Getty Images

"So it has. It's been a four-year path."

That path has Williams going back to the Final Four with the team that's favored to give him his third national title, which would surpass the record of his mentor, Dean Smith.

This team is playing as well as any he's ever had, and the Tar Heels tore up the record books Sunday night. North Carolina shot 61.5 percent from the field, which is the highest percentage in a Regional Final in the history of the program. The Heels scored 1.54 points per possession, which is the second-most efficient game of the Williams era, per KenPom.com.

All five UNC starters ended up in double figures. Johnson led the way with 25 points, and his 12 rebounds were only three shy of matching Notre Dame's 15. He took home the game ball he tossed over his head as well.

"I didn't mean to do that," he said. "It was a bone-headed mistake on my part, but I'm going to the Final Four. Whatever."

As the seconds ticked away, Johnson bear-hugged Paige and lifted him into the air, both shouting out "four years."

"The only thing better than this is winning the national championship," Paige said. "As great as this is, when you win, you want to win more."

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @CJMooreBR.


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