Thursday, March 31, 2016

George Washington wins first-ever postseason championship, capturing NIT title

Hoisted up by Patricio Garino (left) and Tyler Cavanaugh, (right) Mike Lonergan cuts down championship net after George Washington wins NIT with commanding 76-60 win over Valparaiso. (Photo courtesy of Jaden Daly)

NEW YORK -- Just about the only thing that went wrong for George Washington Thursday night came during their postgame celebration, when Madison Square Garden security would not let the Colonials take a ladder across the court to cut down the other net that remained intact following the first symbolic takedown.

Fittingly, it was GW's two biggest contributors who rose to the occasion once more, as Patricio Garino and Tyler Cavanaugh, who led the charge in the Colonials' 76-60 victory over Valparaiso, hoisted head coach Mike Lonergan up to grab the last souvenir in the program's first-ever National Invitation Tournament championship victory.

"We couldn't be happier to win this NIT championship," proclaimed a beaming Lonergan, who urged his players to leave a positive imprint on their careers after an Atlantic 10 tournament loss to eventual conference champion Saint Joseph's kept GW (28-10) out of the NCAA Tournament field. "These guys wanted to leave a legacy. I told them instead of senior night, I wanted it to be 'senior month,' and it was."

The Colonials did just that, making a statement in each of their five NIT contests, from surviving Hofstra on Alex Mitola's go-ahead shot in the final seconds, to a convincing win over Monmouth and gritty home victory against Florida, and concluding with systematic and methodical takedowns of San Diego State and Valparaiso this week at the Garden. GW's vaunted 1-3-1 zone, which yielded a microscopic 29 percent opposing field goal percentage on Tuesday, was just as effective on this night, limiting the Crusaders (30-7) to just eight three-point field goals and a 35 percent second-half clip whose figure was enhanced by a late rally that ultimately proved inconsequential.

"Our zone was really good this weekend," said Cavanaugh, whose 32 points and 17 rebounds in GW's last two games earned him NIT Most Outstanding Player honors. "We played two very good teams and we beat them pretty handily, and that's just a testament to us as a team and our coaches putting us in the right position to win."

"The NCAA is always the goal," Cavanaugh further opined, "but we proved this year that you can make a lot of memories in this great tournament."

Following a tightly contested first half that George Washington led by just one point, holding a 32-31 edge at the intermission, the Colonials went to work on both ends of the basketball in the second half. A 15-4 run that saw the defense allow just two field goals in the first seven-plus minutes ballooned the lead into double digits, a deficit from which Valparaiso would never recover. The Crusaders would venture no closer than 10 points the rest of the way, and a 9-2 spurt by GW quickly extinguished any hope of a rally.

Four Colonials ended the night in double figures, with Kevin Larsen's 18 points leading all scorers. For Valpo, Alec Peters recorded a double-double with 15 points and 10 rebounds, and was also the only non-GW player named to the All-Tournament Team. George Washington played yet another crisp game from a ball handling perspective, committing just eight turnovers on a night where the sting of missing out on the "Big Dance" gave way to the jubilation of winning a championship.

"To leave the NIT championship winners is so special," said point guard Joe McDonald, who also garnered All-Tournament Team recognition. "We play 37-38 games, and there's not a lot of teams that can have their final game for a championship. We're just as proud that it's on this stage, and we're happy that it ended this way for us."

George Washington 76, Valparaiso 60: Tempo-Free Analysis

Patricio Garino does the postgame honors, cutting net after George Washington's NIT championship win. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)


New York City- A first time champion was going to be crowned.

Valparaiso and George Washington, past NIT participants, never advanced this far. The setting, Madison Square Garden, was a fitting locale to bestow a first national championship on the winner.  

A dominant final twenty minutes helped George Washington break open a close game at the intermission, coupled with a 7-2 spurt over the first three possessions of the second half. The Colonials were never threatened after that en route to a 76-60 victory and the NIT title.

First Half: If there are any nerves present, George Washington is not showing them. At the 12-minute mark, they have a 16-10 lead, far from a rout, yet a sign the Colonials are putting their stamp on the contest in the early going. GW is utilizing their zone, and Valpo’s offense varies from four out to three-out, two-in. Valpo is attacking, not simply firing from the perimeter. Rather, dribble penetration is a key, getting in the gut of the zone. GW misses a three that could have put them up 11, and Valpo answers with an 8-0 run to tie the score at 24 with just over five minutes remaining. Simply said, for all GW threw at them these first 20 minutes, you knew Valpo would not go away.
Halftime: GW 32, Valpo 31
Possessions: GW 32, Valpo 31
Offensive efficiency: GW 100, Valpo 100

Second Half: The Colonials score on their first three trips winning the first five possessions 7-2. Postgame interviews on Tuesday heralded the importance of the first four minutes after halftime as being critical. Obviously, the Colonials heeded the measure and acted on it. Matt Hart buries a three to put GW up a dozen with the same amount of minutes remaining.  At the eight-minute mark, the Colonial lead is still twelve. Time and numbers say Valpo can come back. The flip side is the momentum issue. At this point, George Washington appears in complete control of this one. Kevin Larsen’s three puts GW up 13 with just under six minutes to go. The proverbial dagger? It appears that was the case. George Washington, in the driver’s seat, managed the game, closing out for the NIT championship.
Final: George Washington 76, Valparaiso 60
Possessions: Valpo 66, GW 65
Offensive efficiency: GW 117, Valpo 91

eFG%: GW 52, Valpo 46
Free Throw Rate: GW 50, Valpo 10
Offensive Rebound%: GW 23, Valpo 28
Turnover Rate: GW 12, Valpo 21

What George Washington did well: Defend. As coach Mike Lonergan and his players noted, the defense has gotten better as the tournament progressed. So have the Colonials. Tonight, they held Valparaiso to 91 efficiency, forcing a 21 percent turnover rate. Part of that defensive effort was allowing a 10 percent free throw rate (just six attempts) for the Crusaders.

What Valparaiso did well: Rebound. The 28-23 edge in offensive rebounding percentage was made possible by a 10-7 lead in raw offensive board numbers.

NOTES: The officiating crew was national championship-caliber with Mike Roberts, Jeff Anderson and Ed Corbett on the contest. George Washington finished 28-10, while Valparaiso concluded their campaign 30-7.

Making most of the opportunity, Valpo shot a perfect 6-of-6 from the line. Valpo led 31-24 on points in the paint. GW put those turnovers to offensive use, outscoring the Crusaders 20-13 on points off turnovers. The Colonials had four double figure scorers, Valpo had just one.

NIT Most Outstanding Player- Tyler Cavanaugh, George Washington
All-Tournament Team:
Alec Peters, Valparaiso
Kevin Larsen, George Washington
Joe McDonald, George Washington
Patricio Garino, George Washington

Following a 100 offensive efficiency the first half, Valpo cooled off to 82 over the last twenty minutes. That proved to be the game changer.
Final Thoughts:
“Couldn’t be happier winning this NIT championship. Heartbroken not getting in the NCAA, but each game in the NIT, we played better. Happy for our seniors who contributed so much. Huge win for our program. A lot of people lose the NIT and they say ‘we didn’t want to be there.’ I don’t believe that. I thought we could get in the NCAA and possibly go to the Sweet 16. We didn’t, and I think this is huge for our program and university. Next year, I think Tyler can be a conference player of the year type. Our players have tasted winning. That changes things. That has players working harder in the offseason and doing those things to win. Our guys know how hungry I am.I was very selective on the type of job I took. I enjoyed Vermont, but going to George Washington was like coming home. This is fun for me going against these coaches that are famous, it really is. I thought we struggled early. Second half, Kevin (Larsen) went at them and got them in foul trouble. I thought our defense was good tonight and beginning with Monmouth, our defense was very good and helped us get better each game. Our defense picked up and our guys really believed defense wins championships.” - George Washington coach Mike Lonergan

“To leave with an NIT championship is so special. Not a lot of teams that can play their last game for a championship and on this stage. As Coach said, we got better as the tournament went on, and it started with defense.” - Joe McDonald

“NCAA  is always the goal, but we proved this year you can make a lot of memories with this tournament. We played two tough teams and handled them well here. It began with defense.“ - Tyler Cavanaugh  

“When we come to New York, we feel at home: Alumni,students, good fan base supporting us. We feel like we have an advantage playing in New York.” - Patricio Garino

Marianne Reilly returns to Manhattan as athletic director

Once one of the first cornerstones of Manhattan women's basketball, Marianne Reilly is back in Riverdale after being tabbed to lead Jaspers' athletic department. (Photo courtesy of Manhattan College Athletics)

She was the first female inductee into Manhattan College's Hall of Fame. Today, she became Manhattan's first female director of intercollegiate athletics, nearly a quarter-century later.

Marianne Reilly, a Class of 1982 alumna and the first 1,000-point scorer in the Jasper women's basketball program, was officially introduced in a ceremony Thursday morning at Draddy Gymnasium as the leader of an athletic department that holds 19 varsity teams under its umbrella.

"One of my first orders of business will be to spend time with the staff and student-athletes," said Reilly, who returns to Riverdale after a 30-year tenure at nearby Fordham University, where she ascended the ranks of the administration on the Rose Hill campus, starting out as the assistant director of intramural sports before ultimately becoming the Rams' associate athletic director and senior women's administrator. "I am fortunate enough to be leading a group of very motivated and talented administrative staff and coaches, and while they seem willing to set high expectations for their programs, they are hopefully setting high standards for themselves."

Reilly replaces Tom O'Connor, the former athletic director at George Mason who assumed the same title at Manhattan on an interim basis this past January following the departure of Noah LeFevre shortly after the calendar year began. She is the third female director of athletics in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, joining Dr. Marilyn McNeil at Monmouth and Belinda "Boe" Pearman at Saint Peter's.

"We will operate our athletic program with integrity and class," Reilly proudly stated when discussing her vision for Manhattan athletics. "Every decision that we make will be in the best interest of the student-athlete and his or her experience here. We will inspire and unify the Manhattan College community, telling our story with pride."

"Marianne Reilly brings to Manhattan an impressive record of accomplishment as an administrator and educator," Manhattan College president Dr. Brennan O'Donnell said in a release issued by the college. "As an accomplished student-athlete, a former coach, and as an alumna of the college, she has a deep understanding of what is needed to excel in this important position."

One of her initial projects will be to hire a new women's basketball coach, as the college decided not to renew the contract of John Olenowski after he guided the Jaspers to a 12-win improvement this past season. Regardless, the new captain of the Manhattan ship is eager to take the reins, and offered a positive and enthusiastic outlook on what is to come.

"I am thrilled to be home again," Reilly gushed. "I promise that we are going to do some special things here at the college, so hop on board."

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

NIT Semifinals: Ray Floriani's Photo Essay

New York City- The hustle and bustle is evident everywhere you move. Penn Station, the avenues, side streets, commuters are making their way home, free from another 9-to-5. Amid the mass movement, the neon sign is lit up in splendor. The announcement to those inclined is the semifinals of the National Invitation Tournament.
The nation’s oldest post season tournament. A virtual rite of Spring, as evident as the mixture of frost contrasted by rising mercury. The minute preseason baseball annuals hit the stands, you know NIT time is not far off, a great time on the basketball calendar. On this evening, thete are four solid mid-majors: Valparaiso, BYU, San Diego State and George Washington.  
Detractors may label the tournament as a ‘mid-major’ event. They are missing the point. This ‘Final Four’ is a celebration and recognition of a level that has effectively carried its weight in the ‘Big Dance.’ An added feature no one can detract, playing at Madison Square Garden, the ‘World’s Most Famous Arena.’

The evening’s games give us four programs from different conferences and regions. The games were a study in different methods of execution and success, from Valpo’s defense and ball movement, to BYU’s offense, San Diego State’s rebounding and the 1-3-1 zone of George Washington.
Varied basketball entertainment for fans. Ample material for coaches and would-be coaches to fill their notebooks. A night to remember for fans, especially those making the trip to follow their beloved favorites. The results saw Valpo edge BYU and George Washington handle San Diego State. The final on Thursday gives us two programs who have never advanced this far in the NIT. A new and first-time champion will be crowned.

The years, to we longtime followers, move on in tournament lore. Each year, though, brings a new chapter to be chronicled, a bit of refreshing change mirroring the season of Spring.

Between charts and notes, a press row look at George Washington and San Diego State:
The Vogues sang about the "five o'clock world" in the 1960s. In New York, it remains present today:
George Washington assistant coaches prepare to scout the BYU-Valparaiso semifinal:
The Madison Square Garden jumbotron tells all:
Brigham Young's Kyle Collinsworth meets the media:
San Diego State at the free throw line:
The interview room, in extreme silence, awaits players and coaches in the second semifinal:

Jon Severe to transfer to Iona, immediately eligible

Jon Severe will play final season at Iona after transferring from Fordham. Junior guard is eligible immediately. (Photo courtesy of the New York Post)

Iona reached into a familiar well to begin their latest retooling after this past season's Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship and NCAA Tournament berth.

The Gaels received a commitment Wednesday afternoon from Jon Severe, a one-time New York State Mr. Basketball who spent his first three collegiate years at Fordham. The news was first reported by SNY's Adam Zagoria, who also stated Severe would be immediately eligible for the 2016-17 season, and was later confirmed by an Iona official.

Severe averaged 7.6 points per game for Fordham this past season, but has been a go-to scorer in his career, leading the Rams in points per game as a freshman en route to Atlantic 10 All-Rookie honors. His arrival in New Rochelle will go a long way toward replacing A.J. English in a backcourt that returns not only lethal marksman Deyshonee Much, but also welcomes back former MAAC Rookie of the Year Schadrac Casimir, who was limited to four games last season due to a hip injury.

More information will be posted as it becomes available.

George Washington 65, San Diego State 46: Final Thoughts


New York City- The second semifinal of the NIT featured a team Big Apple fans have seen a few times this season, George Washington. The Colonials, of the Atlantic 10, defeated San Diego State, 65-46. The Colonials will face Valparaiso for the NIT championship. Guaranteed, the champion cutting down the nets Thursday will celebrate the school’s first NIT title.

Three points of emphasis:

1. They fed off the crowd. 
Admittedly, fans do not win games. Players win basketball games. There is something to be said with a devout, boisterous following behind you, though. George Washington seemed to feed off that following the first half when they built a double-digit lead.  In the last four minutes of the first half, George Washington held San Diego State without a field goal. The Colonials took a 35-20 lead into the break. The vital first four minutes of the second half saw George Washington outscore the Aztecs 7-4 to open an 18-point lead. As mentioned, players win games. It doesn’t hurt when they are energized a bit by the crowd.

2. The 1-3-1 is tough to handle.
Mike Lonergan’s Colonials play that 1-3-1 zone with defenders capably disrupting the passing lanes. Steve Fisher’s club attacked it better the second half. In the opening twenty minutes, the Aztecs seemed to get themselves in poor positions, such as the corner, where defenders could easily trap and force turnovers. Through the NIT, the 1-3-1 has been a staple for George Washington.  

3. Defense. 
Beyond the 46 points allowed and the 79 defensive efficiency, George Washington limited their opposition to 3-of-22 shooting from three. Overall, the Aztecs had a chilly 31 percent eFG percentage. Again, the 1-3-1 had a lot to do with it. It’s not all a scheme though, as Lonergan noted how his team has really bought in and embraced defense during this NIT run.

Possessions: George Washington 56, San Diego State 58
Offensive efficiency: George Washington 116, San Diego State 79

eFG%: George Washington 48, San Diego State 31
Free Throw Rate: George Washington 15, San Diego State 20
Offensive Rebound%: George Washington 41, San Diego State 41
Turnover Rate: George Washington 11, San Diego State 19

Final Note: Lonergan was very concerned with the Aztecs’ rebounding. The Colonials were even with San Diego State in offensive rebound percentage. In second chance points, SDSU had a slight 14-11 edge. A bonus for the Colonials was committing only six turnovers for an outstanding 11 percent turnover rate.

George Washington powers into NIT championship

Tyler Cavanaugh's 20 points and 11 rebounds led George Washington in decisive NIT semifinal win over San Diego State. Colonials will face Valparaiso in championship game Thursday. (Photo courtesy of the Syracuse Post-Standard)

NEW YORK -- When their NCAA Tournament aspirations were officially extinguished, Mike Lonergan had a message for his George Washington team shortly before it began competition in the National Invitation Tournament.

Four games into the nation's oldest postseason event, the message has been received, and with stronger emphasis in each passing game.

Bolstered by arguably their best defensive effort of the season, in which a San Diego State team that had been showing signs of a potent offense in recent weeks was held to just 29 percent shooting from the floor, the Colonials (27-10) made short work of their West Coast opposition, thoroughly decimating the Aztecs (28-10) by the final of 65-46 in their NIT semifinal Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.

"I told them I want them to leave a legacy," said Lonergan, who will now coach in a bid for GW's first postseason championship in Thursday's title tilt against Valparaiso, who overcame Brigham Young in the night's first semifinal affair. "I didn't want it to be one NCAA, two NITs, one win at Pitt, and they've taken advantage of it."

The Colonials, who reached this stage with victories against Hofstra, Monmouth, and Florida, stepped on the gas 51 seconds into the game, striking first on Joe McDonald's jump shot. San Diego State would briefly tie the proceedings at six apiece, but an 11-2 GW run quickly snuffed out any hope of a close game for the duration as the Atlantic 10 side played a crisp ball handling game, committing just six turnovers on the night while stifling the Aztecs with their patented 1-3-1 zone defense.

"I think we were really secure," said Patricio Garino of GW's ball handling on an evening where the Argentine senior poured in a relatively quiet 13 points. Of the effort on the other side of the ball, he said: "I think just being locked in on defense was key. No matter if were 1-3-1 or man, knowing the matchups and the focus was the key."

"We wanted them to shoot a lot of threes," Lonergan admitted when describing his reason to employ the zone. "They took 22 threes, and I think that kind of played in our hands."

The onslaught in the opening stanza did not let up after the intermission, with the Colonials expanding their lead to as many as 20, thanks in large part to the double-double posted by junior forward Tyler Cavanaugh, who led all participants with 20 points and 11 rebounds.

"Coming out in the second half has been a weakness for us this year," the big man said. "We did it tonight. We made shots, and that was big. The first four minutes of the second half are huge, and that's when you knock a team out like we did tonight."

Powerless to stop GW's exploits, San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher was mystified by his opponent's efficiency, but nonetheless offered no excuses in the losing effort.

"We played poorly, it's that simple," the one-time national championship-winning mentor candidly stated. "George Washington had a lot to do with us playing poorly. They sliced and diced us at our defensive end and put us in positions that put us a little bit out of character. It wasn't just us, it was them."

The Colonials' final test of what has been a magical late-season run comes Thursday against a Valparaiso team whose defensive efficiency is second-best in the nation, trailing only Wichita State. Regardless, the GW camp remains optimistic.

"I think we're more confident than ever right now," said Garino. "If we do what we're supposed to do, I think we're good."

"When we come out focused, we're tough," Cavanaugh opined. "We know we can score, we've proven that. As long as we commit to defense every game, we're going to be very tough to beat."

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Valparaiso 72, Brigham Young 70: Tempo-Free Analysis

Bryce Drew meets the media after his Valparaiso team defeated BYU in NIT semifinals. (Photo courtesy of Ray Floriani)


New York City - They met twice in the 1940s. BYU and Valparaiso split their two games played during the Big Band era. On this night, the trip to New York, represented a trip to the NIT championship. BYU has been here four times, winning it all in 1951 and 1966. For Valparaiso, this was their first time in the NIT ‘Final Four.’

Another first was realized by the Crusader program on this evening, as Valpo advanced to their first NIT final, edging BYU 72-70 in an exciting semifinal at Madison Square Garden.

First Half: The first five possessions resulted in a 4-3 Valpo lead after 2:16 elapsed. BYU struggled at the start, committing three turnovers in five possessions. Only a Chase Fischer three-pointer on the fifth possession salvaged those first two-plus minutes. BYU continues to have trouble with turnovers. Maybe it shouldn’t be too surprising, as Valpo entered the game with an outstanding 93 defensive efficiency. Offensively, Valpo is doing a nice job with their interior passing, creating excellent close-in opportunities. Down eight midway through the half, BYU switches from man to a 1-3-1 zone, trying to give a different look. Offensively, BYU chooses the three to trim the deficit. Hitting a few, they trail by five at the eight-minute break. Kyle Collinsworth, a double-figure (season average) scorer for BYU, begins to heat up. Regardless, the BYU concern is trying to slow down and contain Valpo.

Halftime: Valpo 44, BYU 30
Possessions: BYU 43, Valpo 42
Offensive efficiency: Valpo 105, BYU 70
  • BYU was forced into a 28 percent turnover rate.

Second Half: BYU wins the first four minutes, 9-6, but the Valpo lead is still 11 points at the 16-minute mark. The run is on, as the Cougars begin finding the range. Valpo’s lead is cut down to four with just under 15 minutes to play, and head coach Bryce Drew calls timeout. The brief respite calms the Crusaders, who take an eight-point lead into the under-12-minute timeout. Hard to believe with all that Valpo has thrown at the Cougars, it’s just a one-possession game midway through the final half. With just under six minutes to play, Valpo is ahead by four. BYU is shooting 37 percent from three, while Valpo is clicking at 44 percent. The three aside, BYU has the deficit trimmed to two with five minutes to go, thanks to attacking the paint.  A traditional three by Collinsworth gives BYU its first lead with just over four minutes to go, but Valpo quickly regains the initiative. This one is headed to the wire, as Valpo leads 71-70 with seven seconds left. The long pass versus pressure is completed, and Shane Hammink is fouled. He hits the first shot, but misses the second. BYU rebounds and pushes up the floor, but a deep three attempt at the buzzer is rejected.

Final: Valpo 72, BYU 70
Possessions: BYU 79, Valpo 78
Offensive efficiency: Valpo 92, BYU 89

eFG%: BYU 43, Valpo 52
Free Throw Rate: BYU 25, Valpo 28
Offensive Rebound%: BYU 33, Valpo 27
Turnover Rate: BYU 23, Valpo 26

What Valpo did well: Spread the wealth. A total 18 assists on 26 field goals, plus five players in double figures, exhibited the Crusaders’ ability to share the ball and distribute. Having the will to survive a few late Cougar runs bears mention as well.

What BYU did well: Force turnovers to produce a late game run. BYU coach Dave Rose constantly switched defenses, attempting to keep Valpo off balance. In the second half, the Cougars forced turnovers and used those Crusader errors to ignite their offense.

NOTES: Valpo led 22-6 in bench points. The shot chart showed during the last 12 minutes of the game, BYU scored 10 field goals, all in the paint. Alec Peters led the way with nine rebounds. Kyle Collinsworth had a very good effectiveness factor for BYU. He was headed to an outstanding one, but five turnovers got in the way.  BYU finished 7-of-21 from three. Valpo was 11-for-28 (.393). An Interesting number: BYU led for 31 seconds. Still, the Cougars nearly pulled off a game decided on the last possession.

Final thoughts:
“Wonderful experience for our program. Three home games, playing in the Garden. The second half, BYU made runs at us. Overall, I thought our team really moved the ball very well. Getting three home games was tremendous. Our path and goal was getting to New York and winning the NIT. This is so memorable, the Garden, the energy around town. All four teams here given the opportunity might have done the same thing (lower NCAA seeds advancing). We run an offense where a lot of different people can make plays. I thought our offense was good, but BYU did a great job making adjustments early second half. To beat good teams and win, you have to have people step up. To have five guys in double figures as we did tonight is an example of that.” - Valpo coach Bryce Drew  

“Disappointed not getting in the NCAA, but winning an NIT is so much better than getting in the NCAA and say just playing a round.” -Alec Peters of Valparaiso

“Difficult when you catch up and let it slip away. We have been a good second half team. We got the lead and gave it back. We thought, that’s what you can ask for. The locker room was tough, a lot of emotion knowing it’s our last game of the season. We’ll rest up and then it’s back to work. That’s what I know best, work.”” - Kyle Collinsworth of BYU

“The zone gave us a chance to get back. We got some long rebounds to get in transition and get baskets before their defense was set. We had trouble in the half court executing our offense. Our advantage was to use transition, the zone allowed us to do that. It came down to the last three minutes, when one team would make one more play. We had the chances to make that play. We have been in comeback situations more than a coach would want. These guys have confidence in our abilities. We just needed to play better. I am pleased with the way we responded to a tough game in the first half. We will have a banquet and be together again, but tonight was the last time together from a competitive standpoint.” BYU coach Dave Rose

Monday, March 28, 2016

For North Carolina, this particular Final Four may be most satisfying

Marcus Paige stands atop ladder after cutting down net in wake of North Carolina's East Regional championship. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Tannenwald via the Philadelphia Inquirer and

PHILADELPHIA -- Marcus Paige, always one to find just the right way to put everything into perspective, initially had a hard time doing so late Sunday evening.

"With 34 seconds left, I started tearing up," the senior guard said after his North Carolina team wrapped up their 19th regional championship, advancing to the Final Four for the first time since winning the entire NCAA Tournament seven years ago. "I was looking over at the bench, the guys were jumping around, my family was right behind the bench. It was really hard to stay in the moment."

After all he has endured since arriving in Chapel Hill, Paige can easily be forgiven for needing to come to grips with his composure for that fleeting moment. A freshman year full of promise gave way to an exceptional sophomore campaign, then to an up-and-down junior year that ended in clouds of suspicion stemming from the NCAA's investigation into UNC's supposed academic fraud. Now a senior, Paige and his teammates can put that specter aside, at least for the next week as they head to Houston.

"We don't need to spend a whole lot of time talking about that," he said. "But it's made this a little bit sweeter, you know? It's been a tough four years in Chapel Hill, but to come out on top, 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."

Perhaps no one is more appreciative of this run than Roy Williams, who has been open about how the investigation has affected he and his program, admitting it has cost him in recruiting and taken enough out of him mentally to where he views every waking moment with his team as his own personal salvation. Sunday night provided no difference in opinion, as the embattled leader again spoke from the heart.

"My integrity and credibility had never been questioned," an impassioned Williams began. "And some people, particularly some media people, took their chances and I didn't like that at all. And I'll never get over that."

Now in the Final Four for a ninth time in 28 seasons between UNC and his prior job at Kansas, where he came within a whisker of a national championship with the Jayhawks in 2003, the significance of this particular run is not lost on the Hall of Famer.

"It is really special," he admitted. "In 2007, I was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and the worst feeling I've ever had is I started thinking about my 1997 team at Kansas, because I felt like I hadn't done anything. I didn't get those guys to the Final Four. That was something I'll never get over, and this one would have been even tougher."

"And with these kids, I wanted it so much for them," said Williams. "Never in my life have I ever wanted anything as much for somebody else as much as I wanted these guys to go to Houston."

North Carolina gets their chance to do just that, with their impending matchup against Syracuse stealing the front page from that other, less desirable, headline.

"The bottom line is, I was able to go to practice every day," Williams humbly stated, taking his mind off the issues that have plagued UNC in the media off the hardwood. "And my team made it a heck of a lot of fun. I'd like that to be the story instead of the other junk."

"To do that with this group, we love Coach and Coach loves us, and we don't ever want this to stop," Paige said, bringing everything full circle. "I think it's been a special ride."

The ride hasn't ended yet.

North Carolina overpowers Notre Dame to return to Final Four

North Carolina celebrates East Regional championship after defeating Notre Dame to reach first Final Four since 2009. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

PHILADELPHIA -- With his team having just given up a 12-0 run that erased an 11-point lead, Marcus Paige decided to rally the troops.

"He said, 'guys, they made runs,'" head coach Roy Williams recounted as Paige kept his teammates motivated. "It's a game of runs. We're going to make a run."

Following the calm and determined message from their senior leader, North Carolina went on a 12-0 spurt of their own, wresting control of the East Regional final away from Notre Dame once and for all, not stopping until the final buzzer sounded on the Tar Heels' 88-74 victory over the Fighting Irish, bringing UNC to their 19th all-time Final Four and first since 2009, when they left Detroit's Ford Field with the national championship in tow.

"That swing was huge," said Paige of UNC's counterpunch, which came after senior forward Brice Johnson had received a potentially costly technical foul during Notre Dame's rally. "We got up 11, and then they erased the 11-point deficit so fast that we had no choice but to keep playing. Once we got in our rhythm and knocked down some shots, it was the game."

The Tar Heels (32-6) fed off exceptional shooting for the second game in a row, bettering their 52 percent effort in Friday's regional semifinal against Indiana by ten points on Sunday, shooting an astounding 62 percent from the floor to set a school record for highest field goal percentage in a regional final. But for all the attention the offense commanded this weekend, and rightfully so, it was the battle of the boards that defeated Notre Dame, (24-12) as UNC's 13 offensive rebounds were just two shy of Notre Dame's total on both sides of the basketball.

"They wore us down a little bit with their depth and their front line," said Fighting Irish head coach Mike Brey. "We took that one-point lead and they really answered it like men, and we didn't have much left, but I loved how we went at them. We gave them everything we had."

UNC attacked the basket early and often, even through a first half that saw both teams trade baskets for the majority of the period. Two quick fouls drawn against Notre Dame's Zach Auguste in the first six minutes enabled the Tar Heels to establish position under the rim, with Kennedy Meeks and Johnson forming an effective tag team against a smaller Fighting Irish lineup.

While Johnson, who posted 25 points and 12 rebounds en route to being named the East Regional's Most Outstanding Player, took control in the first half, Meeks came out of the locker room like a house on fire, scoring UNC's first eight points after the intermission to put the Tar Heels ahead 51-40 with 15:48 to play in regulation. But Notre Dame, as they had throughout their NCAA Tournament run, fought back on the strength of point guard Demetrius Jackson, who scored the first five points in their aforementioned 12-0 outburst to seize the initiative away from their conference brethren. The junior, currently projected by Draft Express as the No. 11 pick in June's NBA Draft, led all scorers with 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting.

Down one with 13 minutes to go, Paige calmly navigated the court on the ensuing possession, draining a jumper to give UNC the lead for good. A combination of empty Notre Dame possessions and a stand that did not allow a field goal for nearly five minutes helped UNC pad their lead, sustaining it down the stretch when the Fighting Irish were unable to get much-needed stops on the defensive end.

With the victory, UNC heads into the national semifinals to face their second straight conference opponent, taking on Syracuse on Saturday after the Orange continued their shocking march to Houston earlier in the day by upsetting top-seeded Virginia to capture the Midwest Regional. The Tar Heels are already being mentioned as the prospective favorite to cut down the nets in the Lone Star State, which their senior leader has no problem with.

"I think we always thought we were going to be the favorite," said Paige. "In our minds, when we're playing our best basketball, we feel like we can't be beat."

Saturday, March 26, 2016

UNC, Notre Dame meet in rubber match with Final Four hanging in balance

Brice Johnson, who scored 26 points and 21 rebounds against Notre Dame in two prior meetings this season, admits his North Carolina team needs to learn from prior mistakes in rubber match with Fighting Irish in Sunday's East Regional final. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

PHILADELPHIA -- On one bench stands a team expected to arrive at this stage, having done so with an emphatic 101-point showing their last time out to bring them there. Across the court is a conference rival that flies under the radar with a No. 6 seed, but has won three games in dramatic fashion to stand at the precipice of something big for the second consecutive year.

That summarizes in a nutshell the clash between North Carolina (31-6) and Notre Dame (24-11) in Sunday's East Regional final, the second of two all-ACC Elite Eight matchups that tips off at 8:49 p.m. from the Wells Fargo Center, preceded by Virginia and Syracuse in the Midwest Regional. And in each of the first two encounters, a different tenor was established.

"We went up to South Bend and they kicked our tails," Roy Williams said of the first encounter between his Tar Heels and the Fighting Irish, a February 6 soiree that ended with Notre Dame scoring 50 points in the second half and posting 20 offensive rebounds in an 80-76 victory. "They were more aggressive, greater intensity, greater effort, more concentration. And then we get them in the (ACC) tournament, and it flipped."

"Those are ones that you burn, you don't go back to," said Mike Brey of Notre Dame's loss in the ACC Tournament semifinals, a 78-47 UNC rout marked by suffocating Tar Heel defense and a game-changing 24-0 run that spanned the end of the first half and beginning of the second. "We just were not very good with the basketball, and give Carolina credit. I think they've stepped up their defense."

The advantage to facing a team for the third time in this setting is that scouting takes on a more familiar tone, having seen a sufficient sample size of what your opponent does schematically. However, the other side of the coin is that the other team can say the same, something the UNC camp addressed leading up to Sunday's battle.

"I would say it's an advantage," Marcus Paige began, "but they also have the advantage of playing us twice as well, so I think it kind of cancels out. I do think it's better than not having played a team, because you at least know what to expect and you know the athleticism, size and shooting that they bring, and you've played against it."

So, what have both teams learned from their two previous brushes with one another?

"Defense wins championships," said Brice Johnson, referencing the Tar Heels' decisive takedown of Notre Dame two weeks ago at the Verizon Center. "We've really played well defensively, especially at the end of the first half and beginning of the second. We can't let up on them, because they're a very good team and they'll make runs during the game."

"Like Coach said, they're playing at a really high level right now, but I think we are as well," Notre Dame forward Steve Vasturia chimed in. "We're so familiar with what they do and they know what we do, so I think just going out there and focusing on what we do best, and playing with nothing to lose, should be good enough for us."

Another key for the gold and blue will be ball movement, making sure to not fall into the trap of UNC's transition defense, which Brey hopes to combat with his dual point guard attack.

"We're going to have to be better finding people," he said. "I'm hoping Matt Farrell in the lineup to start the game helps us, because we have another ball handler on the floor. We didn't start that way in Washington, D.C., and that's kind of taken a little pressure off Demetrius (Jackson) in that we have another ball handler on the floor to start a game."

Fighting Irish forward Zach Auguste played up the motivation factor after the 31-point loss, stating that his team has some "unfinished business" to settle with the Tar Heels. But in the opposing locker room, the mindset is that of what lies at stake, and that takes greater precedence, or so says North Carolina's senior leader.

"If it was us that got blown out, we would be talking about that nonstop, trying to get ourselves fired up for revenge," Paige admitted. "But at the same time, revenge can't be the only motivating factor in a game that gets you to the Final Four."

"That's the biggest thing: This game is to go to the Final Four," Paige reiterated. "I don't care what happened in the past, and I'm sure they don't either. This is a one-game opportunity to change your season."