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The Daily Tar Heel

UNC men's basketball seniors flourish in final ride

UNC forward Joel James (42) shoots the ball during the semi-final NCAA tournament game against Syracuse.

UNC forward Joel James (42) shoots the ball during the semi-final NCAA tournament game against Syracuse.

The trio has had a dominant run in their four years at UNC — tallying 108 wins — but it won’t be until their final game together that the three players will have a chance to fulfill a goal. A dream. A destiny?

The Tar Heels wouldn’t have gotten past Syracuse in the Final Four without the play of the seniors. When the Orange inched closer, they answered. They weren’t going to let the ride end just yet.

First, it was Johnson who stepped up.

Syracuse was leading 16-14 when Nate Britt shot a 3-pointer that hit the front iron and rocketed into the air. Johnson didn’t even give the ball time to start its descent, flying in for a putback dunk to start a 25-12 run to take a double-digit lead into halftime.

“I think any time Brice dunks, the crowd gets electric,” Justin Jackson said. “Momentum can definitely shift your way when big dunks happen.”

And it did just that. Even though the Tar Heels let the Orange draw closer, Syracuse never retook the lead.

Next up, Joel James.

The 6-foot-11 senior came in and was instant offense. Yes, you read that right. James, known for his defensive intensity and ability to play tough down low, provided a spark on the offensive unit.

The Orange cut the lead to five during the final minutes of the first half, and James pulled up from 12 feet. Swish. Two possessions later, the ball was back in James’ hands at the top of the key, with his team up five. No question, right? Swish.

James said he meticulously practices that jump shot during practice, and when the ball came to him he felt good.

“I just stayed in the short corner,” he said. “Joel (Berry) drove and kicked it to me, and I made the shot.”

Enter, Marcus Paige.

He started slow, finishing 1-for-6 in the first half. But when the game was cut to seven points in the second half, it was Paige’s 3-point shot that cemented the lead.

“I think it was probably the biggest play of the game,” Coach Roy Williams said.

And the team agreed. When Paige is shooting well, it’s more than just three points added to the scoreboard.

“Marcus was hitting some big-time open shots,” Johnson said. “If you’re going to leave Marcus Paige open, I’m quite sure he’s going to make a lot of those.”

And for Paige, nothing is more important than seeing the ball go through the net. It gives him — and the rest of the Tar Heel squad — a comfort unmatched.

“After it goes in, you can feel the whole team take a deep breath,” Paige said. “You can feel those momentum changes in the game.”

This season, the trio makes up 38 percent of the Tar Heels’ points per game. And in their final 40 minutes in uniform, the seniors will need to bring their best.

“The ultimate goal at the beginning of the year was not to come in second,” Paige said. “For us to win it would be a perfect storybook ending.

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“I’m just proud to be part of the biggest moment in college basketball for my last game.”