Williams, Boeheim and Emmert on NCAA investigations

HOUSTON — No. 1 seed North Carolina and No. 10 seed Syracuse will square off Saturday night in the second national semifinal game, but it might as well be the Hot Takes national championship.

With the NCAA investigating both teams in the last couple of years for serious infractions, it feels nearly every other question directed at coach Jim Boeheim, coach Roy Williams and NCAA President Mark Emmert at the first day of Final Four availability involves the investigations, punishments (or lack thereof) and benefits to cheating.

While the NCAA has yet to make a ruling on the UNC case that centered around long-running academic fraud, it handed down Syracuse’s punishment a year ago. Among other things, Orange head coach Jim Boeheim served a nine-game suspension, and his team was docked scholarships for academic misconduct, impermissible benefits and a university drug testing policy that occurred within the program for more than a decade.

We didn’t learn anything we didn’t already know in today’s press conferences, so rather than rehash all of that for the trillionth time on the interwebs, here’s a couple highlights from asked of Emmert, Williams and Boeheim about scandals and investigations of the two programs.

Q. You’re trying to become the sixth coach of all time to win his third national championship, yet you’ve had this NCAA investigation looming over the season. How have you been able to balance the up-and-down emotions of the season.
COACH WILLIAMS: Well, it really hasn’t affected the coaching part because it’s been my sort of salvation. I go over there and I don’t think about all that stuff.

We have talked about it so much, it’s been such a big story that I’m tired of it. We have, in my opinion, the greatest sporting event there is, the Final Four, going on. It’s about four schools, four teams, four coaching staffs who have worked their tails off to get here.

All that other stuff that sometimes I call ‘junk’ has been talked about too much. I really want to focus on my team, the other guys, their teams, what’s happening. It’s okay to be a college basketball player and it’s a great event to be in the Final Four.

The first part of the question about being the sixth guy. I really don’t think about those things. I’m trying to figure out how in the dickens I can get enough baskets against Syracuse’s zone. I’ve been fortunate to have great kids that make me look very good and I hope they keep doing it for a long time.

Q. The investigation obviously has gone on for a while, like it did with Syracuse, yet you guys are here. How much tangible impact has it had so far?
COACH WILLIAMS: Jimmy and I had to answer this same question together this morning. Hopefully we won’t have to answer it continually while we’re here.

I think it affected us because it was our school. Jimmy went to Syracuse. I went to North Carolina. We’ve always loved those places, perhaps more than any other coach. It had nothing to do with these players. These players were not involved. It affected us as a distraction, as the way people looked at us personally.

Again, our teams are here because they played their way here. They had nothing to do with all the stuff. I’m looking forward to talking about zone defenses and fast breaks, basketball players who have accomplished a great deal.

Q. Mark, the slogan at the Final Four is, ‘The road ends here.’ There are a lot of North Carolina fans, coach, administrators, those outside of their fan base who want to know what’s the end of the road, when’s the end of the road in their investigation?
PRESIDENT EMMERT: Obviously a very complex circumstance. I’m not going to comment on the nature of the case itself. It’s been moving along very well. The university’s been very cooperative, will be at a place where my staff can issue allegations or notice of allegations in the very near future.

Other than that, it is premature to say when that will occur, but they’re certainly getting to the end of the road on it.

Q. The investigation at Syracuse has always been completed. You’ve handed out the sanctions. As you look back on it, that was an investigation that took several years and involved some very serious academic malfeasance, to say the least. Putting them in the field this year, do you have any reservations about that sending a message that says it’s okay to do that because after a brief absence from the tournament, you’ll be right back in?
PRESIDENT EMMERT: Yeah, sure, I understand why optically people have a lot of questions around all that. It makes perfect sense that they might.

The reality is, is that the Committee on Infractions handed down, which is a group of individuals from the membership, as you know, handed down their sanctions on Syracuse University. The university dealt with those sanctions and this group of young men that are playing right now had nothing to do with any of those violations the.

From Joe’s point of view and the committee’s point of view, their job is not to determine who is eligible or not, that’s up to the members to make that determination. They saw Syracuse as having responded appropriately to the allegations that were against them and having dealt with the penalties that the membership imposed on them.

So we’ve got a team that’s playing right now that, again, had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions, and they should be allowed to play.

It shouldn’t impact these young men. That’s what the judgment of the membership was. I support it.

Q. Mark, I’m going to quote Jim Boeheim. He said, Cheating to me is intentionally doing something, like you wouldn’t want to get this recruit, you arranged a job for him, or you went to see him when you shouldn’t. You called him and you got an edge in recruiting. That’s cheating. I think if something happens that you’re not aware of that it doesn’t really affect the recruit, I don’t look at it in the same way. He basically was standing up for what he had done, what happened at Syracuse was not cheating. Do you agree with what he has said?
PRESIDENT EMMERT: Well, look, the Committee on Infractions looking at the facts in that case. It was a voluminous set of data. It took far too long for all the information to be collected and gathered. I think everybody agreed with that.

When the data were put in front of a Committee on Infractions — this is a body of members of the association that aren’t paid employees of the NCAA. They’re conference commissioners. They’re athletic directors. There’s a former Attorney General of the United States. A former university president. It’s a cross-section of the membership.

When those folks looked at the facts, they reached the conclusion that, indeed, violations of our rules and bylaws had occurred and imposed sanctions that were consistent with their view and that behavior.

I’ll let Coach Boeheim define that how he wants to. But the committee determined these are clear violations of the rules and that, therefore, it warranted some pretty significant sanctions, and they were imposed.

Q. You’re relying on what the committee did. Are you saying you agree lockstep with what their definition of cheating is? I’m trying to get your opinion on what Boeheim said.
PRESIDENT EMMERT: I have enormous confidence in the Committee on Infractions. I think that process works remarkably well. It’s the closest thing you’re going to see to ‘a jury of your peers’ model for as broad an association as this one that includes a wide collection of institutions and members.

I have complete confidence in what that body did in this case.

Q. A lot of people have talked about the presence of Syracuse and UNC here, noted that the risk of breaking rules seems well worth the reward. I wondered if you think the current penalty structure is at all an adequate deterrent and if it’s a concern of yours?
PRESIDENT EMMERT: It’s always a concern of ours that the rules that the members have put in place strike that right balance between being deterrence from behavior that nobody wants to see, to also being too punitive and impacting students, for example, that didn’t have anything to do with it.

I would disagree with those observations that people have. The fact of the matter is that Syracuse, as I have said several times now, went through an exhaustive process. It went through a hearing on infractions. It dealt with the sanctions that were put in place.

This current group of student-athletes had nothing to do with those sanctions, and they happen to be a very good basketball team.

I think to conclude from that that there was no impact on the university is simply wrong. I think they disagreed at that time, and I think they would disagree today that there were no penalties that were inflicted on them.

Then, of course, the UNC case, as I just said earlier, we haven’t even gotten to a place where there have been allegations delivered to the institution. So we can’t make any comment, observation about them one way or the other.

Keep your fire extinguisher handy, because the stories written in the next couple of days from these quotes will be keyboard melting.

Good things ahead for Duke, Carolina McDonald’s All-Americans

Duke and North Carolina were well-represented in this year’s McDonald’s High School All-American Game in Chicago.

Blue Devils’ signee Frank Jackson won co-MVP of the game and was the slam dunk champion. Jayson Tatum, who scored 18 points, is also headed to Duke.

Meanwhile, North Carolina’s Tony Bradley scored 11 points in the game.

What’s in store for the three players now? A total of 141 McDonald’s All-Americans have gone to Duke or UNC before Jackson, Tatum and Bradley. They scored a total of 143,918 points in college, or an average of 1,021 points per McDonald’s All-American.

That doesn’t mean that the three graduating seniors are guaranteed a successful career. Here’s a look at the McDonald’s All-Americans who scored the fewest points at Duke:

Player              Duke Points

Eric Boateng               14

Joey Beard                  21

Michael Thompson      27

Chase Jeter                  62 (so far)

And here are the McDonald’s alumni who did the least with the Tar Heels:

Player              UNC Points

Neil Fingleton             0

David Wear                 79

Vasco Evtimov           105

Travis Wear                 111

Clearly, transfer is the main reason that a player didn’t score well with the Heels or Devils. Overall, the odds are low that Jackson, Bradley or Tatum will transfer during their college years. A total of 15 Duke and Carolina McDonald’s players chose to transfer, giving them 10.6 percent odds of transferring. Duke (12.7%) has a slightly higher McDonald’s transfer rate than Carolina (8.6%).

The three incoming freshmen are more than twice as likely to leave early for the NBA Draft. Duke and Carolina have had 39 McDonald’s All-Americans give up some college eligibility, which is better than one-in-four odds (27.7%). Carolina (34.3%) is more likely to have players leave early than Duke (21.1%).

Of the 141 McDonald’s All-Americans at the two schools, nearly half (69, or 48.9%) scored more than 1,000 points in college. Eleven (7.8%) scored 2,000. More than half (55%) of the Carolina players and 42% of Duke players scored 1,000.

Two in five McDonald’s signees ended up winning a national title at Duke (43.7%) or Carolina (37.1%), and exactly the same number ended up being selected in the first round of the NBA Draft. Just under half (47.1%) of Carolina McDonald’s players became first-rounders, while 33.8% of Duke’s signees did.

While the odds in favor of the three incoming freshmen, it’s worth noting that the McDonald’s selection process is far from an exact science. Shelden Williams (1,928 points) and Rick Fox (1,703 points) were the Duke and Carolina players who scored the most collegiate points after being snubbed by the McDonald’s game.


Players weigh in: who should sing ‘One Shining Moment’ this year?

HOUSTON — Good news everybody, the Turner executives have heard our cries and have reinstated Luther Vandross as the One Shining Moment artist of record.

After casually mentioning during a conference call March 29 that a new artist would be recording the wonderfully hokey and cheesy song for this year’s tournament, Turner Sports avoided a major crisis and reassured the public that Vandross is still the centerpiece of the final tournament video montage.

A 2003 recording of his vocals will accompany the all-encompassing NCAA Tournament highlight montage at the end of the national title game on TBS. But, to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the song, NE-YO is recording his own version to be used for team-centric highlights on the Team Stream coverage on TNT and Tru-TV.

Everybody wins.

For the last 29 years, the song originally written and recorded by David Barrett has accompanied a tournament highlight reel following the end of the national championship.

Teddy Pendergrass also recorded his own version for a couple of tournaments, but Vandross, who died in 2005, took over in 2003 and has been a March Madness staple ever since — except for 2010 when CBS bestowed the honor to Jennifer Hudson. It didn’t go over so well, and Vandross’ version returned the following year.

Luther Vandross is One Shining Moment and One Shining Moment is Luther Vandross.

When news got out that Vandross may not be doing One Shining Moment this year, the players at the Final Four were pretty distraught. Though they were pretty upset that Vandross might be snubbed, they had a few replacements in mind.

Syracuse’s Michael Gbinije and Tyler Robertson suggested that the song be totally revamped by Lil Wayne.

“Lil Wayne, that’s interesting,” Robertson said. “I would want to see that too. That’d be different. Lil Wayne, that’d be funny.”

Orange freshman Franklin Howard is on board with Lil Wayne and also tossed Future into the mix. Seeing as the Atlanta rapper already recorded a song called March Madness, a One Shining Moment remake isn’t THAT out of the question.

Fellow Syracuse freshman Doyin Akintobi-Adeyeye went with some local power and said he’d like Houston native Beyonce to put her own mark on the song. And if she showed up to sing the song live after the National Championship? Even better.

“I’d be very happy but I couldn’t show it in front of my teammates because I don’t want them to know,” Akintobi-Adeyeye said. “At some point I’d hopefully be able to meet her, and say, ‘thank you so much’ or say, ‘how you doing? My name is Doyin.’”

UNC’s Stilman White supports a Rihanna or Taylor Swift taking the reins while teammate Justin Coleman would love a Chris Brown-Drake duet.

But not everybody was on board with picking Vandross’ replacement. There’s only one King of the Bedroom (court?). No need to fix what’s not broken, ya know?

“I don’t think I would get rid of Luther,” UNC freshman Kenny Williams said. “He’s a great singer. It’s just a tribute to him. I would just stick with Luther.”

Tar Heel junior Kennedy Meeks agreed.

“That is disrespectful,” said Meeks, shaking his head and leaning over to interrupt teammate Brice Johnson’s own line of questioning to tell him the bad news.

“How is he not (singing this year)? I don’t want to hear that. I don’t know what I’ll do, but I’d much rather hear Luther Vandross.”

Don’t worry guys, crisis averted. We’ll be singing right along with y’all and Vandross after the title game April 4.

Marcus Paige keeps it poppin’

HOUSTON — Marcus Paige has been asked a lot of questions in his four years at North Carolina — about his prolific second halfs, his relationship with teammate Brice Johnson, his previous shooting woes and his recent resurgence.

But Thursday morning, I threw him a bit of a curveball during the first day of Final Four availability at the NRG Center and asked about popcorn.

It’s not completely random, I promise.

Leaving a press conference in Chapel Hill before the regional round of the NCAA Tournament in Philadelphia, Paige joked about ties between his home state of Iowa and his love of popcorn.

He might’ve been kidding, but it’s only natural that Paige might like to pop a couple kernels occasionally. Iowa is the top producer of corn in the United States, and according to the state’s agriculture department, Iowa farmers harvested 13.3 million acres of the crop in 2014.

And because I’m a popcorn fanatic, I wanted to know the degree of Paige’s devotion to the snack.

Turns out, he’s a pretty big fan, too.

“My two weaknesses are double-stuffed oreos and popcorn,” Paige said. I don’t know how it started or why.”

Sometimes when he’s sitting in his room in Chapel Hill, Johnson sniffs a smell wafting up through the house he shares with Paige and a couple of their friends.

It’s a strong one that snakes its way through their house frequently, most often late at night.

Johnson shakes his head. It’s just Paige downstairs, popping another bag of Butter Lovers popcorn.

“It’s something I notice all the time,” Johnson said. “Every time I look, he’s got it. Sometimes i’ll be sitting in my room and I’ll just smell butter. And I’m like, I already know who it is. Marcus is eating popcorn. That’s his favorite snack. It’s what he likes to do at night.”

Most of the time he just throws a bag in the microwave and a couple of minutes later: heaven.

But sometimes, Paige switches it up and pulls out a pot, some oil and a bag of kernels for a stovetop special.

“It’s easy to just pop a little butter lovers in the microwave for two minutes,” he said. “When I’m at home, I sometimes make stovetop popcorn.

“My mom (taught me). You just put it on the stove and then it pops. It’s one of the simpler things. I’m not very good at cooking.”

There’s a joke here about Paige’s 3-point cooking on the court being better than his skills in the kitchen, but I’ll spare you.

ECU baseball staves off late UNCW rally for 9-6 victory

When the lights come on, the bats heat up for East Carolina.

The Pirates proved just that with a 9-6 win over in-state rival UNC Wilmington at Clark-LeClair Stadium on Tuesday night. ECU’s win was its fourth in the last five games dating back to an 8-6 win over Duke in Durham.

Meanwhile, UNCW’s loss ended a six-game winning streak including a 6-4 win over NC State at home.

After slumping earlier in the season against Rice and North Carolina, the Pirates have surged behind a consistent offense. In the last two games, ECU has outscored its opponents 21-2 and has confidence heading into a massive AAC showdown with Houston at home.

East Carolina outfielder Eric Tyler (25) runs towards first base during a game against UNC Wilmington at East Carolina on Tuesday, March 29, 2016. The East Carolina Pirates defeated the UNC Wilmington Seahawks 9 - 6. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)
East Carolina outfielder Eric Tyler (25) runs towards first base during a game against UNC Wilmington at East Carolina on Tuesday, March 29, 2016. The East Carolina Pirates defeated the UNC Wilmington Seahawks 9 – 6. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)

“We’re buying into our approach before every game,” Pirates third baseman Eric Tyler said of the team’s offense. “We’ve had quality at-bats, putting the barrel on the ball and good things are happening. … We’ve played the best of the best and we’re ready for conference play.”

Coming off his first career multi-home run and ECU-record eight-RBI game against Jacksonville on Saturday, Tyler finished 4-for-4 with a double, two runs and one RBI, reaching base in all five at-bats.

Yeah, six hits, four runs and nine RBI over two games is pretty good. Tyler’s average has jumped 39 points from .284 to .323 since over the last two games alone.

“In baseball, you kind of ride a hot streak when you’ve got it,” Tyler said with a smile. “I could go 0 for my next 30 at any time. … I’m just focusing on seeing it and hitting it.”

ECU took an early lead on a three-run third inning sparked by a Bryce Harman single to bring in Tyler for the first run. Dwanya Williams-Sutton and Harman scored later in the inning to take a lead the Pirates would not relinquish.

UNCW punched in a Steven Linkous RBI single in the third to score Robbie Thorburn, but ECU starter Jacob Wolfe was nearly untouchable from that point on. After a rough outing against Jacksonville, Wolfe allowed just two earned runs on six hits over 6 1/3 innings with five strikeouts.

Expected to be the Sunday starter against No. 15 Houston this weekend, Wolfe finished with 74 pitches against Wilmington. ECU coach Cliff Godwin, a former UNCW assistant, knows how important a win over the Seahawks is for the fan base.

UNC-Wilmington outfielder Robbie Thorburn (22) slides into home plate to score a run against East Carolina on Tuesday, March 29, 2016 at East Carolina. The East Carolina Pirates defeated the UNC Wilmington Seahawks 9 - 6. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)
UNC-Wilmington outfielder Robbie Thorburn (22) slides into home plate to score a run against East Carolina on Tuesday, March 29, 2016 at East Carolina. The East Carolina Pirates defeated the UNC Wilmington Seahawks 9 – 6. (Madeline Gray/North State Journal)

“Any time you can get a win over an in-state rival that really wants to beat you it’s nice,” Godwin said. “Obviously I don’t want any ill-will toward those guys, but I do want to win when we’re playing them.”

The Pirates’ bullpen got in some trouble in the eighth inning with Davis Kirkpatrick allowing three runs on five hits. After an RBI single from Casey Golden, Joe Ingle was brought in for the final five outs to shut the door on the Seahawks late rally. Ingle allowed just one unearned run on an error to earn the save.

UNCW will look to get right against Northeastern in Boston before another midweek in-state battle with Campbell in Buies Creek. The Pirates host a hot Houston club that won the series against ECU last season. This time around, Godwin is excited to exact some revenge at home.

“Houston is going to be one of the best teams we’ve played all year,” Godwin said. “Their pitching staff is one of the best in the country. … We’re just happy they’re coming to Clark-LeClair and we’re not having to go to Houston.”

Meeks leaving tights at home for Final Four trip

CHAPEL HILL — When Kennedy Meeks packs his bags for No. 1 North Carolina’s Final Four trip to Houston, there’s one thing he’s definitely leaving behind — his white tights.

Meeks has worn a white pair of athletic tights underneath his uniform for most of the season. But in trying to shake off a funk, Meeks changed up his normal game day garb and went tights-less in the Sweet 16 win against Indiana.

Before the Indiana game, teammate Marcus Paige told reporters that all it would take for Meeks to be an impact player was a good matchup. And with a physical battle in the paint combined with switching up his uniform and shoes, Meeks finally played the kind of game he’s capable of playing.

Against FGCU and Providence teams that played smaller and faster players in the post, Meeks played a combined 21 minutes and scored just six points. But against an Indiana team that played more physically, Meeks flourished in the post

The change worked and Meeks scored 15 points — his first game in double figures since 12 at Duke March 5 — and grabbed nine rebounds in the 101-86 win.

Against Notre Dame in the Elite Eight matchup Sunday, it looked like Meeks wouldn’t be able to continue on his hot streak as he played just four minutes and didn’t take a single shot in the first half.

But after the break, Meeks erupted in the opening minutes of the second-half, keying his team to an 8-2 run in the first five minutes.

He finished with 10 points to give him back-to-back double digit scoring games for the first time since scoring 10 and 12 against Syracuse and Duke respectively.

“I said to Kennedy and Isaiah — and Brice — three of our four turnovers in the first half were our big guys and being silly,” coach Roy Williams said after the Notre Dame win. “Kennedy just lost the ball. Brice just lost the ball and Isaiah charges a guy. That’s three of our four turnovers. I said I want to play you guys but you’ve got to be effective. I thought Kennedy really was around the basket. Scared me at one time because it looked like Demetrius rolled his ankle badly, but he bounced right back. Kennedy was a big force during that time period.”

During halftime of that game, Meeks worked with strength and conditioning coach Jonas Sahratian to throw an eight-pound medicine ball.

Since injuring his knee and missing seven games from Dec. 16 to Jan. 4, he’s worked with the medicine ball frequently before and during games, including before he scored 23 points against N.C. State.

“(The medicine ball) just helps me a little bit on my explosiveness,” Meeks said. “I think I’ve been doing a great job with Jonas as far as weight lifting and getting my body back to where it needs to be after the injury. It’s been a hard journey, but I’m glad that we’re in — and I’m in the position that I’m in — and the team is in the position that we’re in.”

With his resurgence in the last two games, it looks like Meeks will be swapping out his tights for a medicine ball in his Houston luggage.

“The tights are gone,” Meek said, laughing. “They’re never coming back.”

Nothing but net: Carolina teamwork extends to postgame

They used special scissors with a gold blade, and one after another, the Tar Heels learned what it felt like to cut down the nets that had just taken them to a Final Four.

Most of the coaches knew the feeling. Roy Williams had climbed that ladder before.

“It is really special,” he said. “And that’s the reason I even know how many times we’ve done it. This is my eighth time in 28 years as a head coach.”

Assistant Steve Robinson has been on Williams’ staff for 20 of those 28 years and has strands from seven Regional Finals nets.

Assistant Hubert Davis climbed the ladder in 1991, as a player for the Tar Heels. Sean May had the experience in 2005.

Among the Tar Heels in uniform in Philadelphia on Sunday, only Kennedy Meeks had experienced what it felt like to cut down the second-to-last net of the year. As he took the scissors and trimmed away a piece of the home net, he experienced a sense of déjà vu.

That’s because he’d just done the same thing at the other end of the floor, not five minutes earlier.

The 2015-16 Tar Heels are a loose bunch, crashing press conferences and giggling as they’ve stormed through the postseason. But Meeks wasn’t clowning around as he took a second-helping at the net on Sunday night. Instead, it was the culmination of a selfless player-to-player-to-player hockey assist that would have made Dean Smith proud.

“It wasn’t for me,” Meeks said of the second strand he clipped from the Wells Fargo Center nets. “I got it for Luke. He didn’t get one. So I went and got one for him.”

That would be freshman Luke Maye. The forward didn’t play in the Regional Final win over Notre Dame, but he seemed capable of climbing a ladder on his own. In fact, when the Tar Heels took down the first net, on the visitors’ end of the floor, he was in line several players behind Meeks.

So why didn’t Maye get a turn with the scissors.

“I got to cut a strand,” Maye said.

Clearly, something was fishy around the budding controversy. Just where did the extra strand end up, and why?

Netgate originated two weeks earlier, when the Tar Heels cut down the nets at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., following their ACC Tournament title.

After each member of the team got a piece, the second net hung from a few slim strands. Coach Williams sent his scholarship seniors—Paige, Brice Johnson and Joel James—up the ladder to finish the job.

There was a supply and demand problem: Three seniors and only two nets.

The first net was already around the neck of senior Marcus Paige. A three-year captain, there was no question that Paige would get one.

Johnson and James looked at each other after cutting the second net, but that one was just as much of a no-brainer. The team’s leading scorer and rebounder, Johnson had turned in one of the best seasons in school history. He cut the last strand and wore the net like a necklace.

James was left out. The huge ACC tournament sign that had been mounted to the backboard would have to serve as a substitute for the senior center’s trophy case.

James’ bulky souvenir led to an outbreak of sign stealing, as the Tar Heel players stripped the Verizon Center of any and all ACC Tournament signage, bringing them back to Chapel Hill to divide among themselves.

Last week, in the NCAA opening weekend in Raleigh, James peeled a giant logo sticker from the wall of the PNC Center to join his ACC sign in a collection of oversized signage.

“I’ve been trying to look around and see what I can take,” James said, while sitting in the locker room in Philadelphia.

He pointed to a dog eared decal on the wall that he’d clearly tried to peel away already. “Those sticky signs are a hassle. They ball up and stick to themselves. So I’m not sure what I’ll take yet.”

When the Tar Heels finished off the Fighting Irish to advance to their first Final Four since 2009, James had his chance to get a more manageable memento.

Whoever was in charge of counting strands on the first net and lining up the players accordingly—assuming there was such a person—had a costly miscalculation, however, and James found himself third in line at net number one, which was hanging by just one strand.

Maye was at the head of the line and took the scissors. He started toward the ladder, then turned and offered the scissors to the upperclassman. James deferred, waving Maye toward the basket.

Maye climbed the ladder, but he had no intention of taking down the net. Instead, he clipped away a small strand from the part of the net already hanging free. He held it up for the crowd, then climbed down.

At that point, Coach Williams saw the situation and stepped in to resolve it. He stopped senior walk-on Toby Egbuna, who was next in line, and directed him to hand the scissors to James.

“Let Joel do it,” Williams said, and James climbed the ladder to finally get his net.

joel james cuttingEgbuna was first up the ladder on the other end of the court, getting his strand. That left Maye with a piece of the net far smaller than everyone else’s. Eventually, Meeks noticed the freshman’s bare Final Four hat, because Maye’s strand was too short to tie to the band in back of the hat, as the other players had done.

Maye refused to go up the ladder a second time, but Meeks wasn’t about to let the matter drop. He took it upon himself to cut Maye a strand.

The Tar Heel chain of generosity made sure that everyone got the keepsake they deserved. All the seniors had their nets. Everyone else on the team got a full strand. In typical Carolina fashion, however, getting anyone to take credit for the gesture would be like pulling teeth.

“I got a shorter strand at first, but then I ended up getting one,” Maye said, declining to mention his willingness to sacrifice to get James his net.

“I could care less about the net,” James said, when asked about it. “I was just glad to win the ACC Tournament before. Now, I’m glad to go to the Final Four.”

It turned out that Meeks was the only one willing to point the assist finger, crediting his teammates for their sacrifice and taking a tiny bit of credit for himself.

“I was just being a good friend,” he said.

joel james locker


Pinson earns a seat at the press conference

PHILADELPHIA — After giving North Carolina six points and a whole lot of hustle off the bench in the team’s 88-74 East Regional Final against Notre Dame, Theo Pinson finally earned a spot at the press conference — nametag and all.

Saturday afternoon, Pinson crashed the starting five’s press conference, earning his place in the viral newscycle as he strode across the stage asking where his chair and nametag were placed.

Sunday night, UNC’s larger-than-life sophomore was all smiles as he was invited to walk across the dais to his seat next to coach Roy Williams.

Before he sat down, he held his phone up high, nearly touching the lights positioned to shine on the foursome and took a selfie.

Once he sat down, Pinson wasn’t done documenting the occasion quite yet, pausing to take a couple selfies with Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson.

Coach Roy Williams even joined in with the jokester, switching his and Pinson’s name plates while Pinson nearly took a sip of his coach’s water and then snapped a photo of his coach making his opening statement.

“We invited Theo because we knew he was going to invite himself,” Williams said. “So we might as well make it legit and let him come.”

It took a couple minutes for a question to be directed Pinson’s way, but once Brett Friedlander of the Wilmington Star News shot one his way, Pinson grabbed the microphone with both hands and was ready to roll.

Pinson, who played 23 minutes in Sunday’s win, answered a couple questions, but his enthusiasm dwindled as the conference went on and the questions continued to come.

The Greensboro native said he’d be ok if he wasn’t invited to another press conference — he’d just crash it again.

When his time was finally up, Pinson grabbed his paper nameplate from Williams, promising to hang it on his dorm room door.

HOUSTON BOUND: UNC achieves one goal, others await at Final Four

PHILADELPHIA — It was always a part of the plan.

It had to be.

Houston or bust. Houston or it was a failure. Houston or it was a collegiate legacy left unfulfilled by this class of seniors.

It was a mountain of pressure, heaping higher and higher as the season went on, often keeping coach Roy Williams up at nights

Entering the senior seasons of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, North Carolina had nothing to show for the last four years. Not an ACC Championship, National Championship or a Final Four.

Their individual names would be in the record books, but that wasn’t enough.

No, for the Tar Heels to feel accomplished, there needed to be a physical reminder of the team’s legacy, one that would hang in the rafters of the Smith Center alongside mementos of other unforgettable teams.

The Tar Heels got one banner in Washington, D.C. But that ACC Tournament Championship wasn’t enough. They wanted more — and they needed more — to validate the careers of Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige and to heal their coach and program from the cuts and the black eyes that have defined the last four years.

“I’ve never wanted anything in my life for someone else as much as I wanted to get this bunch to the Final Four,” said Williams. “I’m corny, I’m old-fashioned. I’m anything you want to say, but fortunately for me I was very lucky I’ve had some big-time players.”

And with a 88-74 win against No. 6 seed Notre Dame (24-12) in the East Regional Final, Williams and his players are bound for the Houston-hosted Final Four for the first time since 2009 and 19th time in program history.

North Carolina forward Brice Johnson (11) celebrates during the NCAA Tournament East Regional championship net cutting ceremony at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA on Sunday, March 27, 2016. North Carolina beat Notre Dame 88-74 to advance to the Final Four. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)
North Carolina forward Brice Johnson (11) celebrates during the NCAA Tournament East Regional championship net cutting ceremony at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA on Sunday, March 27, 2016. North Carolina beat Notre Dame 88-74 to advance to the Final Four. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)

“It’s been a tough four years in Chapel Hill,” said Paige, wearing his black and gold Final Four hat on his head and freshly cut net around his neck. “But to come out on top, and with this group, you know how much scrutiny we’ve gotten, even as a 1 seed how many people have doubted us to either not make it out of the first weekend and not being tough enough to win the ACC. A lot of people didn’t even have us in the Final Four, a lot of the experts.

“So to do that with this group, we love Coach and Coach loves us. And we don’t want it ever to stop. So I think it’s been a special ride.”

With 34 seconds left in the game, leading by 16, Paige gathered his teammates on the court before Johnson, named the East Regional Most Outstanding Player with 84 points and 39 rebounds in four games, stepped up to the free throw line.

Thanks to a whopping 61.5 percent shooting percentage — the most by UNC in all 26 regional finals — in 34 seconds UNC (32-6) would be on its way to Texas.

It was almost too much for the senior, and he struggled to keep his composure on the floor. But as the team’s leader and heartbeat for four years, Paige calmed himself and his teammates.

“With about 30 seconds left, I started feeling it,” said Paige, who scored 13 points Sunday and was named to the All-Regional team. “I got emotional. Just starting to think back on how long these four years have been, how much we’ve been through good and bad. All of the times, this is what makes it all worth it. You go through all this, every player dreams of being in the Final Four and now here we are. I don’t even know if it’s hit me yet.”

North Carolina guard Marcus Paige (5) reacts at the end of an NCAA Tournament East Regional championship game at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA on Sunday, March 27, 2016. North Carolina beat Notre Dame 88-74 to advance to the Final Four. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)
North Carolina guard Marcus Paige (5) reacts at the end of an NCAA Tournament East Regional championship game at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA on Sunday, March 27, 2016. North Carolina beat Notre Dame 88-74 to advance to the Final Four. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)

When the postseason started, only one Tar Heel on the team — Stilman White — had ever played in an NCAA regional final. To achieve their ultimate goal of reaching the Final Four, the Tar Heels had to first surpass the milestones of the past four years and make it to the Elite Eight.

Obviously reaching Philadelphia was a crucial step, but it wasn’t the goal. Not by a long shot. It’s merely a stop in the road to the ultimate goal, the ultimate validation needed around a program and a university so marred by the actions of the past.

“It wasn’t about Philadelphia,” Williams said. “It was about moving on.”

And that’s just what the Tar Heels are doing. With losses by Kansas, Oregon and Virginia, UNC is the lone one seed standing in a field of No. 2 seeds Villanova and Oklahoma and No. 10 seed Syracuse.

But even as UNC reaches one goal, there’s still more up ahead.

“It’s almost a storybook,” Paige said. “It’s getting there. We’ve got a little bit of work left, but the book is filling up. We’ve just got to write the last couple of chapters.”

North Carolina forward Brice Johnson (11) and North Carolina guard Marcus Paige (5) hug in the final seconds of the NCAA Tournament East Regional championship game at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA on Sunday, March 27, 2016. North Carolina beat Notre Dame 88-74 to advance to the Final Four. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)
North Carolina forward Brice Johnson (11) and North Carolina guard Marcus Paige (5) hug in the final seconds of the NCAA Tournament East Regional championship game at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, PA on Sunday, March 27, 2016. North Carolina beat Notre Dame 88-74 to advance to the Final Four. (Christine T. Nguyen/North State Journal)

Roy Williams splits finger cutting down nets after clinching Final Four berth

Roy Williams partied really hard after the Tar Heels clinched a spot to the Final Four. So hard, in fact, that he split his finger while cutting down the nets in Philadelphia after North Carolina defeated Notre Dame in the Elite Eight.

Luckily for Williams, a team doctor was on hand to quickly take care of the wound so the 65-year-old coach could continue celebrating.

Williams didn’t show any signs of pain when he cut the net, selling it to the crowd before calmly climbing down the ladder.

“I was up there cutting the net and I started to take a step back and it felt like the ladder moved a little bit,” Williams explained. “I grabbed and when I grabbed the end of the scissors I started bleeding.

“I’ve really got very good-looking blood. It’s very bright, very deep colors.”

For anyone who thought the injury would restrict Williams from throwing down in the locker room, those doubters were sorely mistaken.

Heading to his eighth Final Four and carrying the Tar Heels to a record 19th trip to the national semifinals, Williams clearly still has some work to do  with his net-cutting abilities. If he can find a way to earn just two more wins, Williams might get another crack at the process yet again.