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Roy Williams, North Carolina seniors enjoy reward four years in the making

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Marcus Paige: 'I'm on cloud nine right now' (1:45)

North Carolina's Marcus Paige explains how it feels to reach the Final Four, with Syracuse looming and the toughness the Tar Heels have exhibited the past few weeks. (1:45)

PHILADELPHIA -- His ball cap turned to the side and a hitch in his giddyup, Roy Williams wandered around the Wells Fargo Center basketball court looking about as goofy as a gray-haired, 65-year-old man in a suit and tie can look. He was more Clown Prince of Baseball than distinguished Hall of Fame coach.

But when he stood still long enough to talk, with his voice hoarse from in-game screeching and coated thick with postgame emotion, there was no trying to mask what he was feeling behind a silly grin.

“This team has been my salvation," he told ESPN.com. “People have questioned my integrity for the first time in my life, and this team has made me ..."

Then he paused to gather himself.

“It’s been really good," he said.

It has been good through the awful, with each of North Carolina’s 32 victories partnered with a snicker about the university’s sweeping academic scandal. Plenty of people think the Tar Heels, 88-74 winners over Notre Dame, don’t deserve to be playing basketball at all this season, let alone marching on to their first Final Four since 2009.

Even more will relish the setup of a national semifinal pitting UNC against Syracuse -- one team perhaps heading for hefty NCAA sanctions, the other just coming off them.

Williams has never pretended this has been anything but painful for him, but as his players climbed the ladders to cut down the nets on Sunday, the last person he wanted to talk about was himself.

“I swear I never wanted anything for someone else as much as I wanted this for Brice [Johnson], Marcus [Paige] and Joel [James]," Williams said. “They stuck with me. They trusted me, and they believed in me -- and not all of the B.S. that’s been going around."

That trio, the senior class of this North Carolina team, had achieved nothing and endured everything in its four years. In lieu of ACC regular-season titles or tournament crowns, Elite Eights or Final Fours, there has been academic scandal and upset losses, a tumor scare for Williams and too early tournament exits.

This season alone, these Heels have often been framed as underachievers, despite their 30-plus wins. They inexplicably lost to Northern Iowa early and blew an eight-point lead at home to unranked Duke late. Williams got knocked out of a game with vertigo, and Paige was knocked off his game with a case of the yips. Plus, there was the biggest knock of all: not a single trip to a regional final, let alone the Final Four.

Now, they have checked every box: ACC regular-season winners, ACC tournament winners and Final Four entrants.

“It’s been a long four years," Paige said. “We’ve been through a lot as a class. It’s been a struggle. We haven’t always been a classic Carolina team, but I love this group, man. I love this group."

This group showed both its sides against the Irish: the part worth loving and the part worth losing your hair over. North Carolina shot 61.5 percent from the floor, the highest percentage by a Tar Heels team in a regional final, but they gave back every bit of an 11-point lead after Brice Johnson lost his cool. The senior, fed up with a traveling call on the possession before, slammed the ball in frustration after being whistled for an over-the-back offensive foul. The requisite technical plus possession brought Notre Dame all the way back to take a 53-52 lead.

But the understudies rescued the senior, with Theo Pinson and Isaiah Hicks riding in from the bench to save the day. The two scored nine of North Carolina’s 14 points in a 14-5 run, and a Notre Dame team that made its tournament living via comebacks finally found itself in a hole it couldn’t crawl out of.

“We took the one-point lead, and they responded like men, and we didn’t have much left," coach Mike Brey said. “My hat’s off to them. They’re really playing well. I think they’re playing the best of anyone left."

That, of course, is the curse of wearing Carolina blue. These seniors have spent four years simply trying to get to the Final Four, and before they had a chance to pack up their souvenir T-shirts, caps and snippets of the net, people were on to the next thing.

The Tar Heels are the lone No. 1 seed in the Final Four, and they are set to face a wildly overachieving Syracuse team in the semis. They will be favored to win. They will be expected to win, and they will have to try to win while still waiting for the NCAA gavel to fall.

They know all of that, and they will deal with it once they get to Houston.

In Philadelphia, the Tar Heels were more interested in savoring a moment four years in the making. Williams subbed Paige and Johnson out with 30 seconds left, letting the two stars earn their ovations from the fans. Paige said he felt his whole body tingle in a way he’d never experienced; he was so overcome that he felt physically weak for a brief second as he went to hug Williams.

Johnson isn’t quite sure what he felt.

“I’m, I don’t know, I’m still speechless," he said. “I looked up at the clock when Coach subbed me out for the last time, and I don’t even know what to say. It was a dream."

Then Johnson turned and walked toward the ladder, scissors in his hands.

Three weeks ago, Williams corralled his team as they prepped to go cut down the nets after winning the ACC tournament. He spread his thumb and index finger apart and told them not to take too much net and to move along quickly.

“We haven’t done this in a while," he deadpanned on the court in D.C.

This time, Williams wandered around in that goofy hat of his, looking for people to hug while Johnson and Paige snatched a pair of scissors from the managers and organized their teammates.

They knew what to do.

“Coach always says his players take him to the Final Four," Paige said. “Well, this time, he just took us to one."