PHILADELPHIA — He called it his salvation and his escape. A break from the chaos, and a place where he could let down his guard. Has anyone ever loved practice as much as Roy Williams has this season? He craved it and didn’t want it to end. And in a season distracted by an off-court scandal, he got the ultimate on-court reprieve: One more week with his guys.
There’s a myriad of storylines heading into Houston’s Final Four on Saturday where No. 1-seeded North Carolina, which used a second-half burst to defeat No. 6 Notre Dame, 88–74, in the East regional final, will meet No. 10 Syracuse.
There’s the redemption of forward Brice Johnson, perhaps the toughest one-on-one matchup in the country, who threw the ball in the air frustration after being whistled for a foul early in the second half, got a technical and gave Notre Dame two points in the middle of a crucial 12–0 Irish run. Sent to the bench for six minutes to check his emotions, Johnson returned to finish with a team-high 25 points and 12 rebounds, his 23rd double double of the season and third of the NCAA tournament.
There’s the comeback of senior point guard Marcus Paige, who spent most of 2015–16 mired in a shooting slump and fighting to return to All-America form after breaking his right hand in the preseason and missing six games. Paige lifted the Tar Heels to the Elite Eight with a dominant Sweet 16 performance in which he started 4 of 4 from three. On Sunday night he chipped in 13 points, two rebounds, one steal and one big shot with 12:03 remaining, giving the Tar Heels back the lead after Notre Dame had briefly surpassed them.
There’s North Carolina’s dominance on the glass, especially at the offensive end. Good luck to anyone trying to block out the Tar Heels: Of their 20 missed shots Sunday night, the Heels grabbed 13 offensive boards, which they turned into 23 second-chance points. UNC outrebounded Notre Dame 32–15 on the night.
There’s Carolina being the only No. 1 seed to advance to Houston, where it will be the prohibitive favorite.
But mostly there’s Williams, headed to his eighth Final Four, fourth most in history (only former UCLA coach John Wooden, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and former UNC coach Dean Smith have advanced to more), in a season that’s aged him maybe more than any other. Williams now has more postseason victories with UNC (35) than he did with Kansas (34). After the win, Williams said he “never wanted anything in my life for someone else as much as I wanted to get this bunch to the Final Four.”
The season has taken a toll on the 65-year-old Williams physically, emotionally and mentally. Some days, he just looks old. An environment full of bouncing, giggling 18-to-22-year-olds might give some occasional shots of energy, but moving around clearly hurts and there are lots heavy, painful sighs in quiet locker-room moments. Late tip-off times and endless scouting sessions have left little time for sleep this month. He walks with a noticeable limp after double knee surgery, is obviously sick of questions surrounding the academic scandal and NCAA investigation hanging over Chapel Hill and has gotten choked up describing the hurt he experiences when people question his credibility. And he still misses his friend and mentor, Smith, who died in February 2015 at 83.
His getaway has come each day at practice, where his guys have believed in him, “not all the b.s. and sensationalism” that have clouded the program. Players talk about liking each other and genuinely wanting to spend each day together. But they’re motivated by more than just the guy next to them. Giving Williams another trip to the college basketball mecca, “it means the world to us,” Paige said.
“The stuff we always talk about off the court is well-documented,” Paige continued. “We don't need to spend a whole lot of time talking about that today. But it's made this a little bit sweeter. ... It's been a tough four years in Chapel Hill. But to come out on top, and with this group, you know how much scrutiny we've gotten.”
It’s better to be the ones providing joy instead of heartbreak. Though for stretches Sunday night, it looked like Carolina might miss out on the Final Four, where it hasn’t been since 2009. For this program, that’s an eternity.
Reminiscent of an NBA All-Star game in the first half (lots of scoring and little defense) the teams combined to shoot 61%, a welcome sight after the ugliness in Philadelphia on Friday, when Notre Dame and Wisconsin were locked in a rock fight for approximately 36 minutes. At halftime Sunday, Carolina led 43–38 after connecting on 16-of-25 shot attempts.
In the start of the second period, a revelation: Kennedy Meeks, the baby-faced, 6'10", 260-pound junior who hadn’t scored in the first half or even taken a shot, started calling for the ball down low. He scored eight quick points off tip-ins and post ups, giving UNC a 51–40 edge. Meeks finished with 10 points, all in the second half, shooting 4 of 4 from the field and 2 of 2 from the line.
Then it was Notre Dame’s turn, using a Demetrius Jackson three, Zach Auguste and-one dunk and Bonzie Colson turnaround to ignite a 12–0 run and help the Irish steal the lead back, 52–51.
UNC responded with what Notre Dame coach Mike Brey later called “a championship-level” run. Paige hit a floater, then bench sparkplug Theo Pinson (six points, four assists, two rebounds) poked the ball loose from Colson, dove on it and called a timeout to preserve the possession. In the huddle, Paige reminded his teammates: Basketball is a game of runs, and we’ll make ours. Carolina proceeded to rattle off 12 unanswered points. UNC scored on 19 of its final 20 possessions.
“I’m sitting there thinking they’ve got to miss one,” Brey said. “Is Brice Johnson—can he miss one? Can he just help us a little bit? I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that.”
Said Williams: “Most teams have their peaks and valleys. Most times you have good runs. The other teams are going to have some runs too. If you're significantly better, you know they don't usually have one that lasts as long ... But I'm always confident in my team not folding. I really am.”
There will be time, Williams said, for Final Four analysis. He didn’t want to talk about matching up against a conference foe in the national semifinal, or veteran-laden teams surpassing one-and-done rosters to book trips to Houston. Sunday (and early Monday) was about this group, which has been, for the last few months, his bliss. Forget bad knees, Williams practically skipped up the ladder during the on-court celebration to snip his piece of the net. And then he promptly sliced open his left pinky finger with the scissors.
“He should be used to cutting nets!” Paige said, shaking his head in disbelief. “That's something he's done several times in his career.”
Their coach wouldn’t elaborate on it Sunday, but players know this much for sure: Despite the anguish, scrutiny and physical pain, one thing can heal all, at least temporarily: Another national championship banner. And they’re on their way to get one.