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The Daily Tar Heel

COLUMN: Why Marcus Paige will always be my favorite Tar Heel

marcus paige thp.jpg
Former North Carolina guard Marcus Paige dribbles in the 2016 national championship game.

Before Feb. 26, 2014, I was pretty sure who my favorite Tar Heel of all time was. After Feb. 26, 2014, there was no doubt.

At age 15, I had come across tons of UNC athletes with more hype, more athleticism and more talent than Marcus Paige. But I hadn’t seen anyone who was smarter, tougher or who played better when it mattered most than the former guard. I still haven’t. 

His 35-point virtuoso-like performance at N.C. State, which included seven 3-pointers, five assists and the game-winning layup in overtime was quintessential Paige — and it’s still my favorite Tar Heel performance ever.

When North Carolina was down 11 early in the first half, there he was leaping out of bounds to pick off an inbounds pass, which lead to an easy UNC dunk.

Down 11 again in the first half, there he was diving for a loose ball following a deflected pass for a gritty two points.

And of course, in the second half, he matched small forward T.J. Warren and the entire Wolfpack squad shot for shot, answering every big bucket with one of his own.

After Paige's gutsy 3-pointer with 1:04 left in regulation, a Wolfpack player immediately hit one in response to tie the game. 

And when Warren made a transition layup, plus the foul (he missed the free throw), to put N.C. State up six  with 3:03 minutes left in overtime, the game felt over. The Wolfpack crowd was in a frenzy. My phone was blowing up with texts from Wolfpack fans. My dad was doing his customary yell-at-the-TV routine. I was ready to turn the game off and go to bed.

Then Paige came down the floor, caught the ball on the right wing, jab-stepped a few times, and calmly hit a 3-pointer in his defender’s grill. It became clear: this guy wasn’t going to let UNC lose.

It’s not typical of Roy Williams to hop on a player’s back as if to say, “Take us home,” but that’s exactly what the head coach did in Raleigh that night. Every time UNC needed a big bucket, you could see the screens coming for Paige. He delivered again, down six with 1:25 left in overtime on a 3-pointer.

With 29 seconds left, Roy went instead to forward James Michael McAdoo, and had Paige set the screen for him to get a tough layup inside to tie the game. Immediately after, Warren got fouled (my dad was furious) with eight seconds left and split the pair of free throws, and the stage was set.

With no timeouts, forward Kennedy Meeks hurriedly inbounded the ball to Paige. Paige dribbled down the right wing, and forward Brice Johnson set him a screen going left. At this point, I was well convinced this would either be the best or worst moment of my life. After almost three hours and flashbacks to every heartbreaking UNC loss of my lifetime, Paige turned the corner into the paint, contorted his body, extended his left arm, and flipped in an impossible layup with four seconds left. Ballgame.

I watched the replay of that shot so many times that it was burned into my retinas for the next week, and I’m still not sure how he made it. The play couldn’t have been simpler — just Johnson setting a ball screen — but Paige found daylight. I was mad at myself that I had ever doubted him.

And from then on, I never did. Not later that season, when UNC lost to Iowa State in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament. Not when he was injured periodically his last two years and struggled to reach the same level of production as his sophomore campaign. And definitely not in the last game of his career in the 2016 National Championship. Even though it didn’t always work out for UNC fans, Paige inspired absolute faith in me from then on, and he’ll always be my favorite Tar Heel forever.

So yeah, that miracle 3-pointer he hit against Villanova to tie it? Completely called it.

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