The Best Shot You Won’t Remember



North Carolina guard Marcus Paige (5) shoots over Villanova guard Ryan Arcidiacono (15) during the second half of the NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball championship game Monday, April 4, 2016, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Ben Auten, Staff Writer

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past 3 days, you’ve probably seen the shot that Villanova’s  Kris Jenkins hit at the buzzer beater to win a national title on Monday night. But what you probably haven’t seen is the play before by UNC guard Marcus Paige.

I’ve lived my entire life as a “Tar Heel Born” and a “Tar Heel Bred,” as they say, and after watching us lose a national championship game on a buzzer beater, the only thing that made it possible for me to sleep that night was the small consolation prize of Paige’s incredible, acrobatic shot that tied the game at 74 with just 4.7 seconds left. However, the only thing every highlight video for the next 25 years will show is Jenkins’ game winner that followed.

And if you’ve been lucky enough to follow Carolina basketball the past 4 years, and watch Marcus Paige play, you’ll understand just how cruel basketball can be. If you haven’t, let me explain the biggest roller coaster ride of a college basketball career you’ll ever hear.

Paige grew up in Marion, Iowa, and followed NBA 1st round pick Harrison Barnes from the Hawkeye State to Chapel Hill. Paige, like many other highly sought after recruits, dominated the high school game with relative ease. However, when he committed to UNC, Paige thought he would be able to redshirt and sit behind point guard Kendall Marshall for a year. Paige, a gifted scorer and shooter, needed to improve on his passing and ball handling to be a successful college point guard, and that’s just what he thought he would learn from Marshall. However, Marshall declared for the draft after just 3 years, leaving Paige as the only true point guard on the roster. Head Coach Roy Williams made Paige a starter and gave this undersized incoming freshmen the keys to an offense that was expected to be elite.

And Paige suceeded. Despite a round of 32 loss to Kansas that year, Paige averaged 8.6 points and 4.6 assists his freshmen year and was named to the NCAA All-Freshmen Team. The following year, Paige upped his scoring to 17.5 ppg and averaged 4 assists a game yet again. He became an elite scorer, outstanding point guard and decision maker. Then came the struggles. UNC had just begun being investigated for academic fraud, and injuries hampered Paige’s junior year. He played through plantar fasciitis in his foot for the whole year, and a broken wrist at the tail end of the season. His numbers dropped drastically that year, primarily because he couldn’t practice at all due to his injuries, and UNC lost in the Elite Eight to that year’s runner up Wisconsin. Then, just before his senior season, Paige broke his shooting hand, and missed the first couple games of the season. After a long and slow recovery, Paige appeared to be back and better than ever. In his first game this year, Paige scored 20 points and added 5 assists to knock off #2 Maryland in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Then came, in my opinion, the worst shooting slump in the history of college basketball. Coming into the year, Paige shot around 50% from the field and 40% from three. But in the 2015-16 regular season, Paige shot just 23% from the behind the arc, a 15% drop off from a year ago. A captain for a third straight year, playing his final season of college basketball, and leading the preseason #1 team in country with the weight of the world on his shoulders, this was the worst time for Paige to go into a slump. However, true to who Marcus Paige is, he battled, fought, and led, the whole year, and the Tar Heels earned a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

To give an idea of who Marcus Paige is, let’s take a look back at a few games throughout the year. In his first game back of his senior year, Paige, realizing his team was struggling to guard Maryland’s Melo Trimble all night, stepped up and matched Trimble bucket for bucket the whole night, and made big time plays late to seal a victory. Then, when his shooting went cold, like in both regular season games against Syracuse, Paige had a combined 16 assists and just 3 turnovers to lead the Heels to a sweep of the ‘Cuse. Then, when his shooting went cold yet again in the ACC Championship game against a stingy Virginia defense, Paige locked up ACC Player of the Year Malcolm Brogdon of the defensive end, leading the Tar Heels to an ACC title. Whatever the team needed, Marcus Paige delivered.

Then, at just the right time, Paige’s shooting returned to its usual form. He shot around 45% from three in the tournament on the Tar Heels’ march to a title game appearance against Villanova. We all know by now how the game ended, but how it got to that point is a testament to the greatness of Marcus Paige. With UNC down 10, their biggest deficit of the tournament, and just 3 minutes and some change remaining, UNC called a timeout, and Paige looked around and saw a dejected team that thought their dream was over. Until that point, Paige had had a rather quiet night, but that sense of urgency that UNC fans have come to know and love, kicked in, and Paige single-handedly willed an otherwise hopeless team back into the game. Following the timeout, Paige drove and scored a layup. Then, a few possessions later, he drove and scored again. After a couple of defensive stops, Paige got the ball looking to attack the rim yet again, drove left, and went up for layup. On his way up, he got undoubtedly fouled, but the refs’ whistle never blew. Most star players in that situation would’ve gotten up and yelled at the ref or complained to teammates or to coach. Instead, Paige picked himself up and called an inbound play for himself to catch and shoot a corner three. And he did just that to cut the lead just 3 points. After another defensive stop, Paige’s toughness and fight showed yet again. This time he drove to his right, but missed the initial layup and it seemed Nova’s Daniel Ochefu had grabbed the rebound, ending UNC’s comeback. But somehow, Paige ripped the ball from Ochefu, Nova’s top rebounder, and put up a layup to cut the lead to 72-71 with 21.5 seconds left. After the Wildcats hit a pair of free throws to extend the lead back to 3, Marcus Paige made the best play no one will remember.

UNC guard Joel Berry brought the ball up the floor, and Paige ran off a screen trying to get open one more time, but Nova switched on the screen, and denied Paige the ball. Then, Ochefu fell guarding Paige, leaving the senior open. Berry passed it off to him, and Paige took one dribble and got ready to shoot the game-tying three. Then, on his way up to release the ball, Paige saw an open Brice Johnson under the rim, and just about passed him the ball. But, realizing Carolina pretty much needed a three, Paige readjusted his shot and basically threw the ball at the rim, and it miraculously went in to tie the game at 74 with just 4.7 seconds remaining. The only possibility as to why that shot went in was as a reward for all the turmoil, adversity, and troubles Marcus Paige had fought through the past 4 years. Nova called a timeout, and the UNC players went nuts. Every Tar Heel player, fan, and coach knew that UNC would win in overtime, all they had to do was get it there. Because that’s just how basketball is. I had a few glimpses of that shot being the one everyone will remember forever, not the next one, and I believed we would win for the first time since about the 8 minute mark of the second half.

Additionally, I couldn’t think of a better and more deserving guy to make that shot and win a national title than Marcus Paige. He is the definition of a leader and a winner. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened, and that’s why basketball is so cruel.