GREENSBORO — When Paris Kea watched the stars of the ACC Tournament, she wanted to be just like them.
Before she was an All-ACC first-team guard at North Carolina or an all-time leading scorer at Page High School in Greensboro, she was a wide-eyed elementary schooler sitting in the front rows of the Greensboro Coliseum.
She took field trips to this arena and has seen countless big games, some more sentimental than others. She idolized her cousin, Marquetta Dickens, a four-year starter at N.C. State, and watched her cousin enviously when the Wolfpack would come for the tournament.
"I was just waiting for my chance," Kea said, "just hoping that one day I'll get to play in the Greensboro Coliseum."
Last year, Kea's first with North Carolina, the ACC Tournament was scheduled for Greensboro but moved to Conway, South Carolina, before the season.
This year, she got her chance — scoring a game-high 28 points to lead No. 12 seed UNC (15-15, 4-12 ACC) to a 69-64 win over No. 13 seed Boston College (7-23, 2-14 ACC) in the first round of the 2018 ACC Tournament.
"I feel like I've been waiting for this moment all my life ..." she said. "It's a dream come true."
It was Kea's first time playing in this arena. She didn't waste time making herself at home.
The redshirt junior scored the game's opening points on her first attempt, a contested three from the left wing. She added another three and two fast-break layups in the quarter, finishing with 10 points and three steals in the first 10 minutes. Boston College scored just six points during that same stretch.
Kea finished the first half with 20 points on 13 shots and four made threes. She looked right at home, her family and friends lining the front rows of the arena.
"I just wanted to have my best performance today," she said.
It was one of the team's best, too, at least for most of the game. After losing nine straight games — including Sunday at Duke, when the offense looked rush and the defense looked lost — the Tar Heels executed their game plan for much of Wednesday's win. That's key for a team that too often has failed to find its rhythm when the opponent counters.
For much of Wednesday, that plan ran through Kea, who leads the team in points (19.1) and assists (4.9) per game. The natural-born passer finished with three assists and five steals, one short of her season high. But head coach Sylvia Hatchell knew it was her scoring touch that North Carolina needed to beat the Eagles and halt its losing skid.
"It's tournament time now," Hatchell said, "so she knows she's got to elevate and do what she can do."
Kea slowed UNC down from the opening tip Wednesday, methodically setting up her team's offense and spearheading a pressure defense that forced Boston College into 15 first-half turnovers. And when the Eagles started to go on a run — often a death sentence for these Tar Heels — Kea was there to lead one of her own.
When Boston College cut the deficit to one in the second quarter, it was Kea who scored the final five points of a 7-0 run to settle her squad. And again in the fourth quarter, when the Eagles stormed back and came within two, Kea punctuated a 10-0 run with two made buckets to give UNC a 12-point lead, its largest on the day.
"Every possession is important," Kea said. "So I tried to share that with the team ... 'Let's just take back control over the game.'"
It's something the Tar Heels struggled with when things got out of hand at Duke, where Kea scored just nine points — only her second game with fewer than 10 points all season. After that game, Hatchell said Kea's foot had been bothering her for a few weeks.
But the Greensboro native looked spry in front of her home crowd, engaging with the crowd after every made basket.
"Greensboro had my back today," Kea said.
After their second postseason win in as many seasons, the Tar Heels return to the Coliseum on Thursday to face No. 5 seed N.C. State, a team that beat UNC twice in the regular season. North Carolina had its in-state rival on the ropes in Carmichael Arena, but a late-game collapse cost the Tar Heels a chance at a signature win.
They'll likely need a heavy dose of Kea and Janelle Bailey — who scored 16 points on Wednesday, all in the second half — to have a shot at downing the Wolfpack (22-7, 11-5 ACC) and reaching the third round for the first time since 2015.
N.C. State is one of the best rebounding teams in the country, and its man defense gave UNC fits down the stretch in that January loss. Bailey will be critical for the former, and Kea's athleticism is likely the best antidote for the latter.
It's only fitting that Kea has a chance to play against her cousin's alma mater in arguably the biggest postseason game of her career thus far. Her family will be watching this one, too — as will plenty of wide-eyed elementary-schoolers in the front rows, waiting for their chance for a dream come true.