HOUSTON – An old coaching adage suggests that a team should be given until midnight to savor a victory before turning its attention to the next opponent. The Tar Heels didn’t even wait until the final horn sounded in Saturday’s win over Syracuse to look ahead to the national championship game on Monday night.
“I took about 45 seconds to cherish that moment when [Roy Williams] subbed in our bench and we got to come out,” senior guard Marcus Paige said after the 83-66 win. “That was the moment of relaxation and celebration for me, hugging my teammates and telling them, ‘Hey, we’ve got one more game.’ Because our ultimate goal was not to make the final game, it was to win the final game.”
All-American Brice Johnson, who could not contain his smile after UNC’s Elite Eight win over Notre Dame a week ago, was not in that type of mood while answering questions after his first Final Four win.
“We’ve got one more win to go,” Johnson said. “I’m ready for it. I’m ready to play.”
There was a sense in the UNC locker room after the game that the Tar Heels were willing to lace up their shoes and return to the NRG Stadium floor for a midnight tip to move this tournament along.
“You can get to this point and get to the national championship game, but you still have a game to play,” sophomore guard Joel Berry said. “So we realize that, and we realize we’re not done yet.”
That’s not to suggest UNC is rushing past its most significant victory since 2009. The Tar Heels shot 52.8 percent while holding Syracuse to 40.9 percent in building a 10-point lead late in the first half and never letting their opponent within seven points the rest of the way.
UNC has won every game in the NCAA Tournament by at least 14 points, something neither the 2005 championship team nor the 2009 championship team can claim.
“You’ve got to be happy and satisfied with the way that you played to get to this point,” Paige said, “but I’m sure it will be a lot more fun if we come in here after a win on Monday night.”
Between then and now, UNC will suffer through an agonizing two days of media availabilities, practices, film study, and most of all, downtime. If the Tar Heels have proven anything beyond their capability on the court in recent weeks, it’s that they know ways to have fun while watching the clock hands spin. Video games, pool and ping pong are some of the activities the players already have penciled in.
“We’ll relax, and as the game gets closer, we’ve got to really focus in,” Paige said. “There’s only two teams left playing in the country. There’s no reason for us not to have our best performance on Monday night.”