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Off the cuff: Perhaps the Tar Heels were a little tight on Senior Night. Perhaps Syracuse is getting better as its recent record indicates. Perhaps the Tar Heels aren't that good.

But no one can deny that Carolina is tops in the ACC and going for the league's outright title at Duke Saturday night in a revenge game.

The emotions were so great for the seniors, especially Marcus Paige, whose voice quivered throughout a post-game speech at the Smith Center.

He spoke last after fellow classmates Joel James and Brice Johnson. "I'm a little more emotional than those guys so this is going to be tough for me," Paige said as he started his comments.

He thanked his parents and grandfather and teammates, especially four-year roommate Brice Johnson, and coaches, especially head coach Roy Williams.

Paige came to Carolina expecting to spend a year or two under the tutelage of Kendall Marshall but when Marshall surprised many by going pro, he had to step into the spotlight.

Speaking directly to Coach Williams, he said, "A lot of people were down on me as a freshman but you always believed in me. I can't thank you enough for that. You gave me confidence and helped me grow as a person."

Straining to speak, Paige said, "You made me 10 times a better man that I was when I got here."

All three seniors pointed to more that has to be done this season. "We're a game away from accomplishing something really big," Paige said. "We're not done. We;ve got something else to do."

Johnson said, "I'm ready to go into Cameron (Indoor Stadium) on Saturday and get the win, get the championship."


Tar Heels 75, Syracuse 70
Tar Heels hang on for emotional victory

North Carolina led most of the way on Senior Night but let a 13-point second half lead dwindle to one late before hanging on for a 75-70 win against Syracuse. (2/29)

UNC coach Roy Williams said he didn't care how the Tar Heels won, he just wanted to win for seniors Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and Joel James. "It was extremely important to me for those guys to go out with a win," he said.

"I don't remember more stress for a regular season game than tonight," Coach Williams said, pointing to the fact that those three had been with him through tough years, referring to the NCAA academic scandal.

During comments after the game at a Senior Day celebration, Coach Williams said he would never forget how they had all supported him and one another during "all the junk" as he called it. "This may be my favorite team of all time," he said. "And we've had to some great teams with big-time players."

Johnson was a big-time player for the Heels as he led the way with 14 points and 10 rebounds, and he came through after Syracuse had gone on a 22-12 run to cut a 13-point lead to three with seven minutes to go.

Johnson spun in the lane to get the lead to five and then pass full court to Justin Jackson for a layup to put the Heels up by seven and then hit a pair of free throws to give the Heels a nine-point cushion at 68-59 with 5:27 to go.

But Syracuse wasn't done and went on an 9-1 run over three minutes, anchored by a Michael Gbinijie three with 2:22 left that make it 69-68.

Paige, who had a season-high eight assists, passed to hits and then Isaiah Hicks tipped a rebound to Johnson who scored to get the lead up to five at 73-68 with 1:06 left.

After Syracuse cut it to three, it had a chance to tie or get within a point but missed. Joel Berry got the rebound, was fouled and hit two free throws with 6.6 seconds left to wrap it up.

Berry joined Johnson in double figures with 13 while Jackson, Hicks and Kennedy Meeks had 10 each.

The Tar Heels got 38 points in the paint and scored 16 points off offensive rebounds.

Syracuse, playing for an NCAA Tournament bid, fell to 19-11 overall and 9-8 in the ACC. Gbinijie led them in scoring with 17.

The Tar Heels, 24-6 and 13-4 in the conference, have guaranteed themselves a double bye in the ACC Tournament and can win the regular season title outright with a win at Duke Saturday at 6:30 p.m.


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