By Adam Lucas
There’s going to be a lot of talk about seniors this week. In an era when most of the attention in college basketball goes to one-and-done super-talents, the Final Four participants are fueled by a healthy dose of experience.
When asked about that experience on Monday in the first of many Final Four media sessions, Roy Williams responded, “When you have a team with three seniors like Marcus (Paige), Brice (Johnson) and Joel James, you build up such relationships. In four years, you can build great relationships with kids.”
So how did Williams and his seniors build those relationships? As Paige, Johnson and James prepare for their last set of games in a Carolina uniform, here’s a look at ten games over the past four years that—either directly or indirectly—helped the Tar Heels get to Houston. And yes, there are lots more than ten, but here's a good starting point:
Dec. 29, 2012: Carolina 79, UNLV 73: The Rebels were ranked 20th and had beaten a very good Carolina team the year before in Las Vegas. Paige made some huge plays late, including converting a pair of one-and-ones, and also helped settle Johnson after the big man got a little frustrated after committing a foul. This was the first true “big win” of the Paige/Johnson era.
March 6, 2013: Carolina 79, Maryland 76: The birth of the Paige floater. The freshman made a couple huge baskets late in Carolina’s ACC Tournament semifinal win, one of which brought rain from a nearly impossible angle over the head of Terp center Alex Len.
Nov. 23, 2013: Carolina 82, Richmond 74: Johnson made some big contributions off the bench on the way to his first career double-double (24 points and 12 rebounds), and he also had a couple of momentum-turning blocks. Paige scored a career-high 26 to set up another signature game the next day.
Nov. 24, 2013: Carolina 93, Louisville 84: Paige scored 32 points on 12 shots, but it was his late-game leadership that was most impressive, as he kept a still somewhat young team focused on the way to a big early-season win over the third-ranked Cardinals.
Feb. 4, 2014: Carolina 75, Maryland 63: Johnson shot 8-for-8 off the bench, showing off some of the moves and touch that would eventually—although no one would’ve believed it then—lead to his jersey going to the Smith Center rafters.
February 26, 2014: Carolina 85, NC State 84 (OT): It’s well-established how Williams feels about the Wolfpack. So imagine how he must have felt watching Paige demolish them with 35 points (31 after halftime) on the way to an overtime win at PNC Arena. Paige scored 15 of Carolina’s final 19 points, including the game-winner.
March 23, 2014: Iowa State 85, Carolina 83: Because you don’t just build relationships with the good wins. Johnson has frequently cited this game—when he was injured early and missed the rest of the game—as essential to sharpening his NCAA Tournament hunger. Paige was so affected by the loss, when he committed a key turnover late in the game, that he considered writing the date on his shoes the next year.
March 12, 2015: Carolina 70, Louisville 60: A sign of what could be from Johnson, who found himself in trouble with Williams in the first half after not sprinting back on defense, but then was key in the second half and showed good maturity against the emotional Montrezl Harrell. Johnson finished with 22 points and seven rebounds.
Jan. 4, 2016: Carolina 106, Florida State 90: Because you can’t score 39 points and get 23 rebounds in a road ACC win and not have it be on this list. Oh, and Paige had a quiet 30.
March 12, 2016: Carolina 61, Virginia 57: “Marcus said something in front of the team this year,” Williams said. “Guys, we haven’t gotten a ring since we’ve been here.” This one got them the ring, in a game when it felt like every possession was crucial. Paige played terrific defense on ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon, and Johnson had a stat-stuffing 12 points, nine rebounds, five assists and two steals.