“Well, we're excited. I feel very fortunate. We beat a really good Arkansas team that's had a great, great year. Mike Anderson has done a great job with that team. I think it's three years back there and what he's done with the club has been impressive. He went back to Nolan's days and understanding all the time he's replacing Nolan, and that's not easy. I know a little bit about those kind of things myself. But I hate it this time of year because the kids just think about the outcome of today's game and don't feel as good about what they should feel as good about, and that is what has Arkansas done all year. First of the game, they hit us right in the mouth and we stumbled a little bit and we got it righted and we attacked the press and got some lay-ups, got us back in the game. Three-point game at halftime, and then the second half we ended up shooting 55 percent.
“I thought Marcus was sensational in the second half. He was 1 for 8 in the first half. He was 4 for 6 in the second half. He was 3 for 3 from the three-point line. He did have three turnovers, which I didn't appreciate that, but he can't be perfect. Justin had 14 in the second half, made some big shots. Marcus and Justin and Brice, I think, at halftime were 4 for 20. Brice never really got it straightened out but he rebounded the heck out of it. J.P. had eight assists and zero turnovers against a team that was pressing us all day. Again, all those kids, Brice didn't score but ended up with 13 rebounds for us, so it was just a great time for us.”
J.P., just curious, we asked Marcus about this in the locker room, when you guys went small in the second half, not something you've done a lot this year. What was that like for you guys? How did that work against the press?
“It worked fine. It's like putting another ball handler in the middle, which helped us a lot. It wasn't anything new to me. We do it in practice all the time, just situation type things, and I'm a basketball player. You've just got to adjust.”
Marcus, after going 1-for-8 in the first half, what do you think when you go up there and shoot? Do you ever lose confidence, and how do you turn things around like that in the second half?
Paige: “Well, like he said, like Coach said, he let us know that we were 4 for 20 between the three of us, Justin, myself, and Brice, and I knew that I was getting some decent looks. I didn't take very many bad shots, I just was rushing it a little bit. I think their pressure sped me up a little, so I just wanted to come out and let the game come to me in the second half. And I didn't really force anything and was able to get a couple good looks and after that I got in a rhythm. I didn't lose confidence. My teammates have a great deal of confidence in me and they put me in a position to succeed a lot, so that helps.”
J.P., Coach mentioned your assist-to-turnover ratio. In this kind of game with an up-tempo style, does that fit you best?
Tokoto: “Definitely. I like to play fast, fast tempo. I was definitely looking forward to this game. I mean, it kind of fired us up a little bit, and in press conferences they said we were going to turn the ball over. It's kind of motivation, take care of the ball. That's exactly what we did.”
For Marcus, what's it like to be a player at North Carolina when you don't have the same kind of success that maybe people expect the last couple years? And then how satisfying is it to have turned this season in the right direction and get to this point?
Paige: “Well, yeah. That's a good question. We didn't have the type of regular season we wanted to. We had some bumps in the road, and we weren't a typical Carolina team in terms of our record this year and our seed and stuff. Our fans expect us to have a No. 1 seed overall every single year. Unfortunately it didn't happen for us this year, but we understand the moment, and you've got to win six games. Once you're slotted in the tournament and you're in position, it's up for grabs. And we knew that we had the talent, we had the capability, we just have to buy in and do what we're told, and we've been playing a lot better. Even if we have a bad regular season by Carolina standards, you can make up some ground for that by playing well in the tournament and making things happen late in the season.”
Marcus, Brice said that at some point last year you were given the nickname Second Half Paige. Was that a media thing, a teammates thing, and do you like it?
Paige: “Well, if I could play just as well in the first half as I do in the second half, I would prefer to do that, but sometimes it happens that way. I think it's more the media that pegged that name on me. My teammates kind of went along with it after it got some notoriety, but I don't know what that's all about. I just try to help my team win, and in big moments I feel like I get put in a position to succeed by my teammates that do a great job screening for me and looking for me. Sometimes if you have a poor first half, you want to do whatever you can to erase that and make up for it the second, and that's what I've been able to do a couple times.”
Justin, what was working for you after halftime? You had kind of a rough half, especially being a freshman on the stage. What kind of clicked for you after halftime?
Jackson: “I was just getting easy looks. My teammates were setting me up great. It wasn't really much that I did. I was just trying to cut, get to the open spot, and my teammates were finding me.”
There was a point there when Isaiah picked up his fourth foul, I think Marcus was coming in for Nate at that point, and I think it was Hubert who said go small and you sent him in for Isaiah instead and obviously at that point things really clicked for Marcus. What was behind the decision to go small there, and why then?
Williams: “I think we had gone small in the first half, also, and we've done that a lot in practice. We really have. And so at that point, I even said, I said do we want him to go for Isaiah, do we want him to go for Nate? And I think I told him first -- I told him Nate, and then all of a sudden, it was another foul on Isaiah, so let's go ahead and go small at that time. But we have, we've done that quite a few times. I don't think there's any problem -- we do it in dummy offense on the day of games, J.P. goes through all the out of bounds plays. There's not that big a difference in our offense because we're more of a freelance offense anyway.
“The biggest thing for me of going small is I wanted to have more ball handlers in there. Kennedy was in foul trouble, Isaiah was in foul trouble, Brice was in foul trouble, so that had a lot to do with it, as well. One thing, let's not have misconception, these kids have had a pretty doggone good run for the last three years. We've won 25, 24, and 26, and I'm not getting on the young man down here about his question, but a lot of teams would like that and we have had some problems. We've lost some games that we wanted to win, there's no question. And there's nobody in the world that idolizes Coach Smith more than me, but there was a five-year period there where we lost in the first round, went to the Final Four, lost in the first round, lost in the first round. When I got there nobody on the club had ever been to an NCAA Tournament, so we've had some tough stretches, but these guys -- we had some injuries, and we had to go small one year. We played four guards and still won 25. I feel really good about what these kids have accomplished, I really do.”
I wanted to follow up on that point because ever since 2012, when you had some bad luck in the tournament, seems like there's been a little bit of bad luck the last couple years. So to finally get it back -- turned around to where you're back in the Sweet 16, I'm just sort of curious your thoughts on the last couple years.
Williams: “Well, in 2012, John Calipari and I could have a great discussion because I thought we were the best team in the country, but we can't show that because John has got the ring and his players deserved it. The injuries did hurt us at that time and then the last two years we've had some tough times. We had to go small, we lost Reggie and P.J., and after Marcus's freshman year, I was dumb enough to make a statement I wouldn't trade our perimeter guys we'll have next year for anybody in the country because we were going to have Marcus and Reggie and P.J. And then I looked around and we didn't have either one of them, so that's -- what you're talking about there I can understand, but boy, I feel really good about what these kids have done this year in a really difficult league. Somebody said the only team we lost to that wasn't playing was Pitt. Everybody else was still playing. And we played 19 games against teams in the tournament, we played 10 games against the top four seeds. But Marcus said it best, shoot, we wanted to win the whole thing. We wanted to win the regular season. But I do really feel good about what these kids have accomplished.”
Did you guys hear the announcement during the game about the NC State score, and what do you think about both you guys going to the Sweet 16?
Paige: “Well, it's good for our league. Obviously we're rivals, and when we're playing against each other it's heated and everything, but the ACC has done really well in the tournament, and that just shows the strength of our league. We're happy that the ACC is doing as well as they're doing. I didn't hear the announcement during the game or anything. I just learned about it a little bit ago. But I wasn't surprised because they're one of the better offensive teams in the country and they can really fill it up. Good for them. But if we happen to cross paths, it'll be the same way it's always been.”
Williams: “We did just hear about it when we got back there. Unless Justin was listening for the public announcer to say some things during the play because he's a freshman. The kid got a bloody nose and came back in the game pretty quick. He's tougher. I like that.”
We've talked a lot about the adversity that you've been through personally this year on the court, off the court especially. Given all that, is this run to the Sweet 16 in some ways more meaningful maybe than any other?
Williams: “Well, you know, I'm an emotional guy. When they told me out on the court -- and Steve asked me the other day, one of you guys, I forget who it was -- asked me about if we win today I'd tie Coach Smith for the second most wins in the NCAA Tournament. That means a lot to me. Losing Coach Smith, losing Ted Seagroves, my big-time buddy, Stuart Scott, the stuff that we've had going on, Mitch Kupchak's daughter, it's been a hard year, it really has. I probably acted sillier in the locker room after this game than I have in quite a while. I'm going to try to enjoy the dickens out of this one for a while tonight.”
How have the difficulties this season, like you just mentioned, how have they really framed the season and how have you kind of adjusted to them?
Williams: “Well, you know, it's been hard. Basketball is a game. It's entertainment for everybody in the crowd. My wife gets really upset with me when I say it's my life, but other than my family, it is my life. It's been some rocky times. I told the kids this week, the only difference between stepping stones and stumbling blocks is how you look at them. But the things I've had personally have been really, really difficult. But I've loved coaching my team. I've loved coaching this team.”
Do you have an update on Kennedy Meeks and whether you'll have him next week, and what do you mean by you acted silly in the locker room? Can you give us a brief glimpse into how you acted?
Williams: “It would be the most embarrassing thing of my life probably, so I'll just leave it like that. But I do enjoy acting silly and having fun. I am emotional and wear my feelings on my sleeve a lot in both directions, very happily or very mad, too. But we played in the ACC Tournament, my high school coach said I've never seen you that mad. I said, oh, I've been that mad. These guys have seen it more than he has. But at the same time it's a wonderful feeling to have a bunch of kids trying to make sacrifices towards a common goal. I'm glad -- I hope the cameras weren't all over the locker room, let's put it that way. Kennedy has a knee sprain. That's all we're saying right now. We think that's all it is, but we'll get some X-rays or MRIs or both when we get back and find out what it is.”
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