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Monday October 25th

Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson end their UNC basketball careers

<p>Seniors Marcus Paige (5) and Brice Johnson (11) walk off the court after the 74-77 loss against Villanova.</p>
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Seniors Marcus Paige (5) and Brice Johnson (11) walk off the court after the 74-77 loss against Villanova.

With all the banners hanging around them — six national championships, 29 regular season titles, 17 ACC Tournament Championships — there was an uncomfortable, palpable reminder that Paige and Johnson had given the Dean Dome nothing.

“We haven’t gotten any in the three years that I’ve been here,” Johnson said that November day, before the start of his final season in Chapel Hill. Before he became an All-American, before he had one of the best seasons in UNC history.

And of course, there was Paige, not too far away. Paige, who had already made a name for himself and was already destined to one day look up into the rafters and find his No. 5 jersey hanging with all of the Tar Heel legends.

Still, on that day before his first game of his final season in Chapel Hill, Paige worried about the legacy he would leave behind him.

“I want it to be remembered as, ‘Man, that 2015-16 team had a great run, and Marcus Paige was leading the way,’” he said. “Not necessarily, ‘Marcus had a great career, and his teams kept coming up short.’”

You could feel that desire as Paige willed his team back into a game it would eventually lose to Villanova, 77-74, on the biggest stage in college basketball.

You could see that hunger when he scored seven straight points with just over seven minutes to go to bring his team within five. The hunger to bring something bigger than himself back to the campus that he’s called home for the past four years. The four years that he’s called the happiest and most fun of his entire life.

When he became second-half Paige for the very last time, scoring 17 points and leading his team back from a 10-point deficit to give them a chance to win it all with just 4.7 seconds left.

“It was special,” said sophomore guard Joel Berry, who will now take the torch from the kid from Marion, Iowa. “Marcus is a great player ... That’s what Marcus is capable of doing.

“He’s been doing that his whole career here.”

And don’t forget Brice — not that you were going to.

When he followed up a 3-pointer from his best friend with a jumper of his own to bring his team within one with just over a minute to go. With that shot, you could see the growth Johnson has made since his first year under Coach Roy Williams, way back when he had the mustache and just over ten minutes of playing time per game.

“We’re going to go into overtime,” Johnson said. “That was the whole thing. We were like, ‘Hey, we’re ready. We’re going to go to overtime, and we’re going to do what we need to do.’”

You knew they were going to win when Paige drove to the basket — down 72-69 with 35 seconds left — and somehow missed an open layup but somehow found his own rebound and somehow got the ball back up and in the net.

You knew they were going to win when, with 4.7 seconds left, Paige hit the most significant shot of his entire career as a North Carolina basketball player, elevating and double-clutching and sending that Wilson basketball into that netting that he was sure to own just a few moments later.

And that’s why, seconds later, you didn’t know what to think. Because Kris Jenkins had just taken it all away from Marcus and Brice and Joel James and this 2016 North Carolina basketball team — Roy Williams’ favorite team.

This was it.

“It’s hard,” Paige said, “because at some point tonight I have to take this jersey off, and I never get to put it back on.”

For the very last time, Paige and Johnson found themselves sitting together in a locker room.

And while they came just short of handing UNC its seventh national championship, maybe, one day, they will take solace in the fact that they gave North Carolina everything.

@CarlosACollazo

sports@dailytarheel.com



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