Perfect Tribute

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – After a two-week emotional roller coaster, getting back on the Smith Center court gave North Carolina the lift it needed on Saturday. And with it came the opportunity to honor the late Dean Smith in a fitting way.

“It’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time, two weeks anyway,” head coach Roy Williams said following UNC’s 89-60 rout of Georgia Tech. “I wanted in some way to do something that would mean something to him and mean a great deal to me.”

Georgia Tech gained possession of the opening tap and promptly turned the ball over to the Heels. From there, the stage was set. Marcus Paige raised the famed four fingers and his four teammates on the floor followed suit, as did the entire Carolina bench and many in the Smith Center crowd.

When Paige found Brice Johnson for a vintage back door layup to open the Carolina scoring, Williams’s plan to look back at history was complete -- and executed perfectly in a fashion every Carolina former player, fan and opponent knew oh so well.

It was a plan birthed by Williams after preparation for Georgia Tech was complete.

“When we got done reviewing film for GT, (Coach Williams) drew on the white board the four people in the corner and the guy in the middle. He said this was going to be the last way we honor Coach Smith,” Paige said. “It meant a lot to him and the fact that we were able to do it correctly…I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous to execute a play than that. It meant so much for the moment, the crowd and to Coach Williams. I am glad it worked.

“Brice went back door and caught the pass and I was very happy. I know Coach was too.”

Despite being too young to fully grasp the power of the gesture, each player involved joined Paige in acknowledging the importance of that one possession.

“To be a part of that play was cool,” J.P. Tokoto said. “To be one of those five guys on the floor for that. You hear stores about the Four Corners and where it comes from, but to actually go out there and score a bucket was pretty cool.”

Johnson’s take on the play will come later as he was not able to make the postgame interviews due to illness. But his basket completed the final on-court tribute to the man the built Carolina Basketball, and revolutionized college basketball into the shot clock era we see now. And for the tribute to come in the building named after Smith, on the weekend Smith’s life will be celebrated in the same place, where the Heels call home, could not have been more fitting.

“It was huge,” freshman Justin Jackson said. “Coach said we were going to do that. We ended up running it and it worked perfectly. It was the perfect tribute for him. I heard stories and saw videos of when Phil Ford used to run that and he used to annihilate the defense and to be able to score off that was perfect.

“Being home today was great. You don’t realize how important home is until you go on a stretch like we did going away,” Jackson added. “To be back home, to be able to do those sort of things for Coach Smith, that was really big.”


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