With 9:05 left in the first half, the game was tied at 16 and Johnson found himself sitting and watching after picking up his second foul.
This is where things take a downward turn for the Tar Heels, right?
“When (Johnson) went out, we went small for a stretch and we really upped our defensive intensity,” Paige said. “We got a bunch of stops in a row.”
Over that nine-minute stretch, a Johnson-less UNC lineup held Syracuse to just 5-of-14 shooting with two turnovers. At the same time, the Johnson-less lineup started to figure it out on the other end.
“Then we were able to get a couple fast-break points,” Paige said. “Justin (Jackson) got out on a run out, I got a fast-break jump shot ... It’s easier to score against that zone when it’s not a zone, when they’re still running back.”
One might assume it would be easier to score against that zone with UNC’s best scorer on the court. But that wasn’t the case Saturday night.
The Tar Heels used five different lineup combinations to finish the first half — none of which included Johnson. In that period, the Tar Heels outscored the Orange 23-12.
“That’s how we want to play,” said Johnson after the game. “We want to play together. It’s a team sport. We don’t really care who gets the most points. We’d rather be spread out the way it was today.”
Joel Berry, who was instrumental in breaking down Syracuse’s zone by penetrating off the dribble, echoed those thoughts.
“That’s what kind of team we are,” he said. “We’re not all about ourselves. We’re all about making a good play.”
You can see that in the way this team passes the ball — they are fourth in the nation with 17.8 assists per game. You can see it in how they act around each other in practices, during media sessions and after games.
The team — and winning games as a team — is the most important thing.
“We love each other,” Johnson said. “We don’t really care who gets the credit.”
You could see that after the game Saturday night, as Johnson stood outside the locker room, badgering Coach Roy Williams as he slowly made his way to the entrance before celebrating their first national championship game appearance since 2009.
“Let’s go!” Johnson said to his coach. “We’ve got some stuff to do.”
The two walked into the locker room, and as the doors closed behind them, the beginning of a celebration within leaked out past the doors, joy unable to be contained.
Johnson and the Tar Heels hope there’s still one more to come.