It’s probably best that the local fire marshal wasn’t on hand for the North Carolina locker room scene following Saturday’s 90-82 loss to Notre Dame. Media members rushed into the confined quarters as soon as UNC officials opened the locker room door, and television cameras, let alone reporters, outnumbered the Tar Heels as they politely went about the business of packing up to make the hour-long bus ride back down I-40 east.
While the first wave of questions focused on the loss, fatigue and the Fighting Irish’s lightning strike of an offensive explosion, as head coach Mike Brey would later describe it, the more pressing storyline emerged in the questions and answers that followed.
This group of Tar Heels was not going to let the immediacy of its title game loss overshadow the strides it had made during the run to the title game.
“I just think we started playing the way we’re capable of playing,” forward Joel James said. “We just woke up and played Carolina basketball.”
UNC lost six of its final 10 regular season games, including its last two home games to rivals N.C. State and Duke, and had failed to show poise and toughness at various times throughout the season.
The Tar Heels arrived in Greensboro and got to work building some positive momentum with an 18-point win over Boston College. Solid, but expected. That wasn’t the case in the quarterfinals, however, as UNC shook its late-game demons with a clinic down the stretch to pull away from Louisville.
On Friday, the Tar Heels upset No. 3 Virginia, a team that had proven to be almost unbeatable over the course of the season, with energy and defense early and poise late.
Those same characteristics were on display for the better part of 30 minutes in Saturday’s championship game, at least until a visit from the past occurred and mental miscues aided the blistering-hot Irish in staging an incredible comeback.
According to the Tar Heels, those last 10 minutes don’t tell as much as the previous 150 minutes at the ACC Tournament.
“I think we have grown in the four days that we've been here,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “I think we've shown some toughness during those four days. We've played better defensively during those four days. Sometimes, and I talk about this all the time, you've got to give the other team some credit.”
Regarding the toughness topic, Justin Jackson, normally calm and cool in postgame interviews, fired back when asked about it in that packed locker room.
“Everybody wants to say we’re soft, that we don’t have enough toughness,” Jackson said. “We made it to the championship. We didn’t come out with the victory, but we made it to the championship. We’ve still got the big tournament. We’ve just got to go back to the drawing board and fix some little details.”
Spurring the team growth has been individual improvement. Jackson, who is seemingly adding layers of confidence with each passing game, scored a career-high 22 points in the win over Virginia. Brice Johnson re-established himself as a consistent post scorer, while frontcourt mate Kennedy Meeks is on the right side of an illness that produced 103-degree fevers earlier in the week.
Most importantly, Marcus Paige is finally the Marcus Paige that earned All-America honors last season and that was tabbed ACC Preseason Player of the Year this season. He scored 22 of his 24 points in the second half on Saturday, one week removed from scoring 23 points in UNC’s home finale against Duke.
“I’m healthy; that’s the biggest thing,” said Paige, who has suffered with plantar fasciitis since late December. “I’m healthy and I’m glad I can play without being in pain. Our team is growing despite this [loss]. It was tough because we wanted this one bad, to get a chance to win a championship of any sort. But you can’t deny the fact that we got better as a team.”
When Meeks was asked what the team could take away from the ACC Tournament beyond Saturday’s loss, he replied: “That we are capable.”
Hope is a requirement for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. If anything, the ACC Tournament may have refueled that intangible for the Tar Heels.
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