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UNC Seniors Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige Want to Complete Their Legacy in the Final Four

During their four years in Chapel Hill, Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson grew up as players and as people. Now they're looking to end their college basketball careers on top.
April 1, 2016, 2:00pm
Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

This feature is part of VICE Sports' March Madness coverage.

As the final buzzer sounded in the East Regional final last Sunday night, North Carolina seniors Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige embraced each other. The friends had arrived on campus together in the fall of 2012, and each spurned the NBA last year for one more college season. Now, following an 88-74 victory over Notre Dame in Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center, they exchanged a few words amid the Tar Heels' on-court celebration.

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"He's like, 'Four years, man. This is what makes it all worth it,'" Paige said.

On Saturday, North Carolina will compete in the Final Four for the first time since 2009. They will face Syracuse, whom they already defeated, 75-70, on February 29. Since then, the Tar Heels have won nine consecutive games, capturing both the ACC regular-season and tournament titles; they have looked like the powerhouse team that was ranked first in the preseason Associated Press poll.

Read More: Villanova's Ryan Arcidiacono Wants To Make His Last Tourney Run A Long One

That Johnson and Paige are even in position to help North Carolina win its sixth national championship surprises some people within the program, who weren't sure they'd be back. After a loss to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 last March, North Carolina coach Roy Williams asked Johnson if he was leaving for the NBA. The question startled him. "I didn't even think about it," Johnson said. "I was just worried about trying to get better."

When Paige also chose to return, the Tar Heels had all but one contributor (J.P. Tokoto) back from last season's 26-win team. Still, they didn't get off to the best start as they lost to Northern Iowa in the fourth game of the season; it was one of six games they played without the services of Paige, who missed an early chunk of the season with a broken bone in his right hand.

"Every single day hurt because you'd get to sit there and watch your guys compete, watch them do what we love to do, and you don't get to be a part of that," said Paige, who is averaging 12.3 points and 3.7 assists per game. "You're over there on the bike and in the pool and doing all this stuff that helps you get better, but it's not basketball. It's not what you love."

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When coach turns things over to Stilman White. Photo by Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Paige returned to the lineup in early December, but he struggled with his outside shooting and finished the regular season shooting a career-low 32.4 percent on three-pointers; on a team that's otherwise light on perimeter scoring, that hurt. Since the ACC tournament began, though, Paige has made 41.3 percent of his three-point attempts, and that includes a 0-for-7 performance against Virginia. During last Friday night's game against Indiana, Paige tied the North Carolina NCAA tournament record with six threes, including four in the first five minutes. Paige, a four-year starter at point guard, also passed Michael Jordan on the Tar Heels' all-time scoring list.

"Marcus was making video-game shots to start the game," Indiana coach Tom Crean said. "I mean, seriously. He's a tremendous player."

Johnson has emerged as one of the nation's best players, too, although his coaches didn't always consider him in such a positive light. Whereas Williams called Paige "one of the greatest true student-athletes I've ever been around on the basketball court," he's been hard on Johnson almost every day since he came to Chapel Hill.

During his first two seasons, Johnson played behind James Michael McAdoo and gained a reputation as someone who didn't always put in his full effort. He doesn't dispute that notion even now that he's a first-team Associated Press All-American and North Carolina's leader in points (17.1) and rebounds (10.5) per game.

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"I'm still kind of lazy," Johnson said last Saturday. "I've got a lot better at it. It was kind of tough my freshman year, sophomore year, just because I didn't know what to expect. I didn't know how much I'd play…. After a while I was like, 'OK, I can do a lot better. I've just got to get in the gym and just work on my shot.'"

When your close friend criticizes his performance after a near 30-30 game. Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Williams stays on Johnson even when he seemingly dominates. After Johnson had 39 points and 23 rebounds against Florida State in January, Williams told Johnson he forgot to box out an offensive player on six possessions. "I was like, 'There's no way,'" said Johnson, a two-time high school state champion in the high jump. "He showed it to me and I was like, 'OK, well, I should've had 30 and 30 then. Sorry.' We still won. I'm not going to be the perfect player. I don't play the perfect game. I've just got to do a little better."

Johnson was scolded again last Sunday night when he slammed the ball on the court in frustration after committing a foul with 13:17 remaining. The referees called a technical; Notre Dame made both free throws and then scored on a layup to culminate a 12-0 run and take a one-point lead. As Johnson walked to the bench, Herman Johnson, his father and high school coach in South Carolina, screamed at his son.

"He was giving me a lot of crap," Johnson said. "Coach was giving me crap. Everybody was giving me crap. I didn't mean to do that. It was a boneheaded mistake on my part. It's just whatever. I'm going to the Final Four. Whatever."

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With Johnson on the sideline, the Tar Heels didn't miss a beat, scoring on seven consecutive possessions and outscoring the Irish 14-4 until Johnson returned with 8:05 left. Johnson scored 10 points the rest of the way, finishing with 25 points and 12 rebounds; it was his 23rd double-double of the season, a record for the program. Afterward, Johnson apologized to his teammates in the locker room for the technical—he realized he made a mistake.

Nah dude. Photo by Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

"He didn't always play as hard as we'd like him to play, but I think he's shown a great deal of maturity," North Carolina assistant coach Steve Robinson said. "It really does, from a coaching standpoint, bring a smile to your face to see a kid and how far he's come during the course of his college playing career."

Johnson has either one or two games left to play as a collegian, and his ride with Paige will end either Saturday or Monday, the night of the NCAA championship game. He's already trying to make every moment count. After last Sunday's victory, Johnson grabbed the game ball to keep, while Paige walked around the arena and locker room with the net hanging from his neck. Johnson wasn't jealous of Paige.

"I'll get the national championship [net]," he said. "If we get to cut those down, I'll take that one."

If that happens, it will be the highlight of Johnson and Paige's four years in Chapel Hill. Either way, both will see their uniform numbers raised to the rafters at Smith Center in Chapel Hill for making an All-American team. Two more victories would just make their college days that much more special.

"He could've probably left for the NBA last year, and now look at him," Paige said about his teammate and friend. "I had a chance to leave. But we stuck with this program. We stuck with each other. Now we're really reaping the benefits."