My Favorite Heels Team Yet.
I’ve been alive for 2 national championship winning North Carolina squads (2005, 2009) and 4 final four teams (2005, 2008, 2009, 2016). Yes, the dominant run through the tournament to the title in 2009 was great to watch, but I feel this team was more entertaining to watch play. I had an insane amount of confidence in this team, probably the most I’ve ever had in a North Carolina team. From game number 1, I knew that this was our year. We were destined to win the title in Houston, and stand on that podium and watch One Shining Moment. Ultimately we fell short of that goal, but my feeling towards this team still stands. The 2015–16 Tar Heels are my favorite North Carolina team ever.
The last time I was this confident in a North Carolina team was 2011–12. I thought we were destined to win that year. I still believe if Kendall Marshall never got hurt we would’ve beaten the odds and beat the Kentucky Wildcats in the title game, but that’s a completely different story for another day. Even though we started out as the preseason #1 team according to the AP Poll, this team was doubted all year long. After losing to Northern Iowa (Round of 32, lost to Texas A&M), despite missing our star Marcus Paige, we were labeled overrated. After losing to Texas (Round of 64, lost to Northern Iowa via half court buzzer beater), the overrated shouts got even louder, despite still holding a 7–2 record, including a victory over then #2 Maryland (Sweet Sixteen, Kansas). We were scolded and criticized for not playing to our true potential. Because it’s totally realistic for a team to reach their full potential 9 games into the season. Speaking of true potential, it seemed like the Heels were starting to climb to that potential, ripping off 12 straight victories, including one against a then red-hot UCLA Bruins squad coming off of wins over Kentucky and Gonzaga @ Gonzaga. But as fate would have it, the UNC is overrated camp found it’s way back into national prominence after dropping back to back games to Louisville (self imposed postseason ban) and Notre Dame (Elite 8, lost to North Carolina), and also beating Boston College by only 3 points. All three games came on the road, in 3 extremely tough environments for anyone to play in. After the win over Pitt, we lost to our arch rivals Duke (Sweet Sixteen, lost to Oregon) at home, and what do you know, the UNC is overrated camp was back. You see a pattern here? I understand the extremely high expectations that come with being the preseason #1 team, but the amount of crap this team took from the media all year was for the most part completely unjustified. And I think part of the reason that this is my favorite rendition of the Heels I’ve seen in my life is that the team wasn’t affected by the pressure at all. The Heels finished the regular season 25–6, winning the ACC regular season title, and avenged the home loss to Duke by ruining Marshall Plumlee’s senior day. The Heels stormed into, and subsequently through the ACC Tournament, beating Pitt by 17, avenging an earlier loss to Notre Dame in a 31 point destruction, and avenging ANOTHER earlier loss to UVA by 4 and becoming the outright ACC champions.
Going into the 2013–14 season, the Heels were heavily expecting PJ Hairston to be the star of the team following a breakout sophomore campaign. But he never stepped on the court his junior year, as he was suspended by the NCAA for multiple violations and was never reinstated. At the time it seemed like a brutal blow to the team, but instead started the legend of Marcus Paige. Now having to tackle a bigger role than expected, Paige delivered an All-American season that not many people saw coming. Paige put up 17.5 points per game and was really the only 3 point threat on the roster, shooting at a 38% clip from downtown. Also he nearly willed the Heels to the Sweet Sixteen, only to be shot down by a clutch 3 down the stretch from Iowa State, which ultimately foreshadowed the last game of Paige’s career.
Due to his amazing sophomore campaign, the bar was set ridiculously high for his junior season. What followed was unfortunately seen as a disappointment, 14.1 points per game and 39% from deep. Truth is, he played through plantar fasciitis in his right foot, and a right ankle injury that required surgery after the season, so in context Paige had an impressive season that ended in a very competitive loss to eventual national runner-up Wisconsin. In that loss though, I realized went a full offseason of improving, this team could do special things… and they did.
The expectations for Marcus Paige were sky high. His first season since his great sophomore campaign he was gonna be healthy, up until he wasn’t. In one of the final preseason practices, Paige broke his hand and was set to miss at least 5 games. Little did we know the injury was a blessing in disguise. The injury made us learn not to be so dependent on Paige as we were the previous two seasons. And in Marcus’ absence, a beast was born.
Brice Johnson was known as the uber athletic, lanky big man who wore his heart on his sleeve. Also, he was known for being a constant subject of Roy Williams’ frustration, but that was only because he knew Brice could be so much better than he was. His sophomore and junior years, Brice experienced moments of pure dominance, but never could quite sustain it. He would frequently disappear for long stretches of the game. But that changed his senior year. Brice knew he had to step up in Paige’s absence, and step up he did. In the six games that Marcus missed to start the season, Brice had 5 double-doubles, showing consistency he hadn’t shown at any point in his career. Perhaps not coincidentally, the only game where Brice didn’t have a double-double in that 6 game stretch was the loss to Northern Iowa, and that was what set the stage for Brice’s monster year. Even when Marcus returned, Brice kept up his double double tendencies, including a 25/10 game vs Tulane and a 16/16 game vs UNC-Greensboro, and a near double double vs UCLA (27/9). But once again when the team needed Brice to step up, he stepped up. As I mentioned earlier, Marcus was the team’s goto scorer the previous two years, but in ACC play Marcus fell into a terrible slump. I personally blame his slump on the hair cut he got at the beginning of the ACC play, but hey, that’s just a theory. After a horrid game against Clemson to start ACC play, Brice completely took over, responding to the 3 point, 9 rebound outing to the tune of 15/11 @ Georgia Tech. And then the signature game came. In Tallahassee against Florida State, Brice absolutely dominated FSU’s frontcourt, dropping 39 points and snatching 23 rebounds with eye-popping efficiency that became Brice’s trademark, shooting 14/16 from the field. Any doubts about whether or not Brice could keep up this level of play was instantly put to rest. Brice dominated pretty much everybody he played the rest of the way, recording 12 double doubles in ACC play, 23 total on the season. And I can’t forget to mention his insane dominance in the two matchups versus Duke, 29/19 in the loss @ Chapel Hill and then 18/21 in the revenge game @ Cameron Indoor. Brice was snubbed ACC Player of the Year and arguably snubbed ACC Defensive Player of the Year also, but he did make First Team All-ACC, was a consensus First Team All-American, and a Wooden Award finalist. Brice had a very special season and will now have his jersey hanging in the rafters next to Marcus Paige’s starting next year.
The ACC is the best conference in college basketball. Has been for a while now. It proved that in the NCAA Tournament, where by the Elite Eight the ACC had already clinched a spot in the National Title game. This team was special because no team in the ACC could challenge or doubt the fact that North Carolina owned the ACC this year. In a nail-biting regular season ACC title race, the Heels needed to win in Cameron, a place this senior class had yet to win in, to win the regular season ACC title. If we lost, we would’ve lost the title to Virginia by virtue of tiebreaker. Not many Heel teams in recent memory wouldn’t had the mental fortitude and the pure confidence this team had going into that game. Maybe that 2011–12 team. Probably the 2009 championship squad. That’s what I admired most about this team, they were never phased by pressure or criticism. The Heels marched into Cameron Indoor, took care of business and had a well-deserved celebration for surviving the always tough ACC gauntlet and coming out on top.
But the guys knew the grind wasn’t over. There was still two championships to win, including defending our ACC regular season championship crown in the ACC tournament, and that’s where we caught our stride. We left no doubt as to who the top dogs were in the conference, running away from Pitt 88–71, absolutely decimated Notre Dame 78–47, and winning a nail biter against regular season runner-up UVA. We were ready for the national championship run, rolling into the tournament on a 5 game winning streak, and 7 of our last 8. But again, a common theme popped up. The doubters showed up again. The media, once again drastically underselling just how good this team was, thought it was no way North Carolina would survive the East Region. I’ll admit, I thought the region was really tough, with SEC Tournament winner #4 Kentucky, Big 10 regular season champions #5 Indiana, the always tough #6 Fighting Irish, #3 West Virginia’s tough pressure defense, and #7 Wisconsin, a team that lost two great players but was still an experienced team capable of making a run. But never did I think we wouldn’t survive the bracket, but somehow the media saw differently. In ESPN’s 10 Bold Predictions, they predicted North Carolina wouldn’t even survive the first weekend. Seth Davis of CBS Sports called the Heels the most overrated ranked team just before the beginning of the tournament. It was insane. What had we done for all these analysts to not trust us? The Heels sported one of the most productive and efficient offenses in the nation, averaging 85.7 points per game, and we routinely dominated the paint averaging 38.5 rebounds per game. And while our defense for a good portion of the year was shaky, the Heels tightened it up starting in the loss @ UVA. Oh but North Carolina can’t shoot! Who cares? We sported one of the worst 3 point shooting teams in the nation and still dropped 70 and 80 on a nightly basis. But no worries. The Heels weren’t worried about all the noise, and that was evident from the get-go.
Well actually not from the get-go. Against Florida Gulf Coast, a 16 seed, we had a terrible start to the game. At the end of the 1st half we were only up 41–40. Twitter was exploding at the notion that a 1 seed may actually lose to a 16 seed. But never fear, Brice was here. Brice’s absolutely dominated the defensive side of the game, recording 5 blocks in the 2nd half, 8 total. Hell, even Isaiah Hicks threw in a block for good measure and the Heels cruised to a 83–67 win, winning the second half 42–27, but doubt was still there. If Florida Gulf Coast gave the Heels fits in the 1st half, then why can’t Providence do it for 40 mintues? Once again, the Heels started a bit slow in the first half versus Providence. When they weren’t dealing with foul trouble, Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil were both giving us buckets, and we only went into the half with a 4 point lead. But I wasn’t worried, much like most North Carolina fans because we’ve always been a 2nd half team. Aided by Dunn and Bentil fouling out, the Heels once again dominated the 2nd half 51–36. Sensing a pattern here? That was the story of all of our tourney games, except for Indiana where we really dominated both halves en route to dropping 101 on the Hoosiers. My confidence was through the roof, we were unstoppable, undeniably on our way to our 6th National Title. I was bragging on twitter and in school. It was a great time. Then the National Title game came.
I was so nervous leading up to the game. Not really nervous about whether or not we were gonna win, but more so nervous about the magnitude of the matchup. I got home from school and resorted to the best time-killing solution known to man, I went to sleep. I woke up right at the tip and my heart was pounding. This was it. It was our last game of a magical year, the last game of Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson, and Joel James’ career. Oh yeah and Stilman White, I haven’t forgotten about you bro. Tip, Nova wins. Sloppy play ensues. Missed layup, turnover, back to back missed jumpers, turnover. Then, Mr. Strongman himself Joel Berry breaks the ice and nails the three. Marcus goes 1/2 from the line. Archie nails back to back jumpers, first TV timeout we’re deadlocked at 7 a piece. My heart rate was most likely at very unhealthy levels at that point, but I didn’t notice I was so invested in the game. With about 3 minutes left we were all tied up at 30, and a patented dominant North Carolina run came, at least to an extent. 9–2 run. 7 point lead. I felt we were establishing dominance. Berry was on absolute fire, apparently on a injured foot too. End of the first half, Phil Booth, this year’s Grayson Allen-esque spark plug off the bench, nailed a jumper at the buzzer. That hurt me probably a bit more than it should have, I wanted us to go into the half with all the momentum, but Nova managed to seize some momentum. To start the 2nd half, we both got two buckets each and then suffered through a period of pure offensive futility. The period would soon end but not in our favor at all. Nova completely took over the game, and by 5:30 mark it was looking bleak. We had some very questionable calls go against us and some very questionable non-calls not go our way, but that’s neither here nor there I guess. (8 fouls against us in a row? Really?) We were down 10 and showed no signs of offensive production at all.
At 1:39 left in the game with the score at 70–64 left, it became the Marcus Paige show. The senior was not going to let his team sink under pressure. 1:35, Marcus for three, bang. Two possessions later after a Brice Johnson basket and two Phil Booth free throws, Paige went to the paint with the giants. He missed the layup, and I was absolutely devastated. That was the end. Nova was gonna get the rebound, nail two free throws and walk away with the ship. That was, until Marcus Paige SOMEHOW got the rebound and made an absolutely circus shot layup. 72–71, 23 ticks left. Josh Hart nails two free throws, stretches the lead to three. Everyone knows who the ball is going to. It’s gotta be #5. Daniel Ochefu nearly steals the pass from Strongman, but Paige gets it and then shoots the greatest shot I have ever seen in my life. He picked up the ball, jumped, double-clutched to avoid the contest, shot and landed on one foot and NAILED IT. I started jumping around, literally SCREAMING. It was beyond lit. We were going into OT where we were gonna win for sure.
…Up until we weren’t. All we needed to do was play good defense for 4.7 seconds. We were pressing Archie, Kris Jenkins was the inbounder. I will admit, it was a simple yet very brilliant play design from Jay Wright. Disguising Kris as just the inbounder. Archie comes down the court, flips it behind him to Kris. Kris shoots, Isaish contests. Bang. I was in complete denial. No way he got that off in time. Oh yeah definitely he released it late, OT baby. But it wasn’t meant to be. The journey was over and we weren’t the victors. It was devastating. I’m not ashamed to say I cried. We were so close. 5 minutes and 4.7 seconds to be exact. But we never got those 5 minutes, just the painful 4.7. Paige, Brice, Joel would take off their jerseys for the last time and not as champions but as runner-ups. It was heartbreaking. But…
I refuse to let that shot define the season we had. Brice Johnson blossomed into an unstoppable force on both sides of the floor, became a First Team All-American and greatly improved his draft stock. Best of luck to him and Marcus at the next level. Joel Berry II also blossomed going from 4 ppg to 13 ppg as our 3rd/4th option. Next year as potentially our go to option, his stats will continue to rise. The preseason AP #1, who only exited the top ten for one week, had a phenomenal season that I thoroughly enjoyed watching. We beat then #3 Maryland at home in a thrilling matchup. The senior class exorcised their Cameron Indoor demons and finally notched a dub there. We persevered through all the doubters, those who said we had no chance of winning the ACC? We won it outright. Those who said we weren’t gonna make it past the first weekend? We dominated our way to the National Championship game. This season was truly special, and even though we didn’t accomplish our ultimate goal, we did accomplish things no North Carolina fan should ever forget. I know I won’t.
Next year is officially the Redemption Tour, and we (hopefully, please don’t leave underclassmen) have the pieces to make another long run in the tournament next year. Another offseason of improvement under one of the best developmental coaches ever should turn Strongman Joel Berry and Isaiah Hicks into stars. Also Theo Pinson, Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Nate Britt, Kenny Williams should take huge leaps in development too. And with McDonald’s All American Tony Bradley, scoring machines Seventh Woods and Brandon Robinson coming in, the roster is shaping up to be great. Thank you for the great memories 2015–16 team, 2016–17 team, let the redemption tour begin.