"We just wanted to come out with a mindset that we're a better team than we showed last time and we had a great opportunity to earn a ring and win the ACC Tournament championship," Paige said.
The Tar Heels proved they belonged on the court with the Hurricanes at Greensboro Coliseum. Last month, Miami landed the first blow and never stopped swinging. On Sunday, the teams alternated knocking down critical shots, scrambling for hustle plays and making the occasional defensive play.
The first half alone delivered six ties and 13 lead changes. During one 3-minute, 33-second stretch, the lead changed eight times as the teams combined to make 9-of-12 field goals.
In rare act of prolonged one-upmanship, P.J. Hairston (28 points, 6-of-13 on 3s) traded 3-pointers with Shane Larkin (28 points) and Trey McKinney Jones (20 points, 6-of-9 on 3s) on five successive possessions resulting in 15 total points over 124 seconds.
UNC finished shooting 13-of-29 from long range, while Miami countered with a 12-of-22 effort. The 25 combined 3-pointers set an ACC Tournament final record.
Miami's initial strategy was straightforward, designed to pound the ball inside while also allowing Larkin to penetrate and kick. Hairston effectively shot the Hurricanes out of its size advantage in the post by converting 4-of-7 3-pointers before halftime. Miami head coach Jim Larranaga pulled Kenny Kadji in favor of wing Rion Brown to stay with Hairston on the perimeter and off the dribble.
The Tar Heels, however, had no answer for Larkin's playmaking ability. UNC coach Roy Williams rotated Paige, Dexter Strickland and Reggie Bullock on the sophomore guard, who gift-wrapped several wide open 3-point attempts to McKinney Jones.
"He's really a complete guard," Paige said. "He's not selfish, he attacks, he finds the open man. He's had as good a year as any guard in the country. He's a great player."
Larkin worked most effectively off the high ball screen and even managed to slice around his defender to get into the lane time and time again.
UNC kept up by holding its ground on the boards (trailed 28-24 on the glass with 8:39 to play) and by knocking down dagger threes to offset Miami's constant push. The 3-pointers eventually stopped falling, though. A Bullock 3-ball from the top of the key with 12:05 to play gave UNC a 59-56 lead. It also represented the Tar Heels' 13th and final 3-pointer.
Trailing 63-58 with 10:52 to play, Miami showcased why it won the outright ACC regular season title. The Hurricanes outscored UNC 25-10 over the next 10:13 to secure its first-ever ACC Tournament championship.
"They probably outplayed us for the last five or six minutes of the game, but other than that, it was a dog fight," Paige said.
Moral victories don't exist when it comes to Carolina basketball. There was an unmistaken sense of pride, however, in the postgame locker room.
"I felt like everybody on our team played their hardest on every possession," Bullock said.
Roy Williams was emotional on the media dais during his postgame press conference, praising his team‘s effort and resiliency, while also making sure everyone knew the importance of the ACC crown.
"I told my guys I don't ever want to walk in there and say, ‘okay, guys, it's over with, we'll see the selection show on TV at six o'clock,' because I want guys to hurt and learn from it," he said. "So if we get an opportunity again it will be even more important to them. But it's always important to me. You don't get that many chances to be a tournament champion of the ACC."
In a small square room across from the UNC locker room, Bullock talked about his team's positive momentum not being halted by this loss to Miami. Midway through, he stopped as screams of exuberance emerged down the hall from Miami's locker room.
Bullock shook his head and said, "Hearing celebrations like that just makes me burn inside."
The do-everything junior wing added that he would take that feeling with him into the NCAA Tournament before returning to answering the pending question.