Marcus Paige, who set his third career-high in the last five games with a whopping 32 points, heard the murmurs. He heard his classmates doubt his team, hoping for a first-round loss to avoid playing the defending national champions.
“You hear stuff on campus,” Paige said. “Our fans are some of the most passionate ever, so you hear them going crazy, and you hear them say, ‘Hey, if we don’t beat Richmond, we don’t have to play Louisville.’ That kind of thing.”
And yet, midway through the second half of Sunday’s championship game, the Tar Heels held a three-possession lead against the Cardinals — a lead that they carried until the final horn to take the tournament crown with a convincing win.
“We just wanted to come here and give better effort,” Paige said.
“We had a bad taste in our mouth because we had to watch the whole film of the Belmont game, and we had to hear people talk about it on campus and talking about how we might have to play Louisville this weekend.
“We just wanted to come here with the mindset that we can change our season. We can get back on that right mind-frame that we’re one of the best teams in the country if we play together and play hard.”
The expectations were low for a team that was still without its leading scorer and top 3-point threats, a team that suffered only its 15th non-conference home loss the previous week.
But points from unexpected places — 13 apiece from freshman Kennedy Meeks and sophomore Brice Johnson — gave the Tar Heels power to defeat a Louisville team that previously owned a 29.6 margin of victory..
The Tar Heels thwarted Louisville’s stifling press, using dips and dodges from freshman point guard Nate Britt and pitch-ahead passes that emulated those used by UNC to defeat Louisville in the 2008 NCAA Regional Final.
UNC also found a way to quiet the Cardinals’ explosive offense. After Louisville connected on seven of its first eight shots, the Tar Heels swarmed the Cardinals, forcing them to miss 40 of their next 59 attempts.
Despite holding Louisville to a low field goal percentage — 38.8 percent for the game — UNC still couldn’t fully contain Louisville’s top two guards, allowing Russ Smith to score 36 and Chris Jones, 20.
“You have to play a total game when you play (Louisville),” coach Roy Williams said. “You have to guard, you have to handle the press, you have to score in the halfcourt — you have to do everything. Besides looking down and seeing Russ with 36 and Chris with 20, I feel great about what we did.”
North Carolina came into the game as a 10-point underdog, its fan base growing restless and uncertainty still swirling around the eligibility of two top players.
But none of that mattered to the Tar Heels.
“There’s a lot of unbelievers out there,” junior James Michael McAdoo said.
“That’s just how the world is. But we don’t play for them. We play for the guys that are in this locker room. We know what we’re capable of doing, so just to win this game, just for each other, we could care less who the leading scorer was or what even the score was.
“As long as we win, North Carolina is going to be the team that gets the rewards for that.”