Paige was coming off National Player of the Week honors following his combined 58 points in last weekend's Hall of Fame Tip-Off, so UAB assigned 6-foot-6 Jordan Swing to blanket him on the perimeter early with plenty of help defense behind.
"We had talked about and practiced before the game that they might go into a box-and-one on Marcus," point guard Nate Britt told reporters following the game. "So we already knew coming into the game that they would have a game plan to guard Marcus really hard."
Paige was limited to two points on 1-of-4 shooting in the first half. The sophomore guard finished with 13 points on 6-of-16 shooting, including an 0-of-6 mark from 3-point range.
Paige worked off screens and found a handful of penetration lanes in the second half after UAB switched to a zone to combat UNC's size in the post.
"They paid attention to me, obviously," Paige said. "But I just tried to crank it up another notch and we started making a run to try to get back in the game. I decided that if I get in the paint some, then it might make some opportunities because we weren't getting a lot of easy looks in the first half."
Forward Brice Johnson emerged as a secondary scoring threat last weekend (18.5 ppg) as James Michael McAdoo managed just 18 total points in Connecticut. Neither were very effective at Bartow Arena; McAdoo scored six points on 3-of-13 shooting while Johnson was limited to eight points in 16 minutes due to three quick fouls.
McAdoo is averaging eight points on 30 percent shooting (9-of-30) over his last three games. For a team in desperate need of scoring, the junior forward has to accelerate his adjustment to his new role that includes minutes on the wing.
J.P. Tokoto was UNC's primary scorer until Paige warmed up midway through the second half. The sophomore wing scored a career-high 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting (1-1 from 3).
Take away Tokoto's efficiency and the rest of the UNC roster shot 38.4 percent (20-of-56), including a 0-of-11 effort from beyond the arc.
The scoring deficiency was even more glaring as the Tar Heels clamped down defensively in the second half while erasing all but one point of a 15-point deficit.
"We were getting stops at the time, so it was offensive execution that we were struggling with," Tokoto said. "That was kind of holding us back from going on one of our runs."
Despite holding the Blazers to 21.9 percent shooting over the final 20 minutes, UNC was unable to consistently penetrate and utilize its strength on the interior. And when those opportunities occurred, the Tar Heels were often unable to capitalize. UNC missed 4-of-11 free throws, including a pair of front ends of one-and-ones.
UNC only attempted three free throws after halftime, which helps to explain why UAB had three fouls to give while leading by three with 36.1 seconds to play. That crucial luxury limited the Tar Heels' options as the clock ticked down.
"It was a hard strategy because they played the first 17 minutes on the second half with only one foul," UNC head coach Roy Williams said. "We knew they were going to foul and they did three or four times in a row. We still had it out of bounds underneath, but I think it was under 30, it was probably 12 or 13 at that time. That was the only time we knew we were going to get a shot because they had used up the fouls."
UNC set up three plays in a row knowing that UAB would foul anyway. The Blazers fouled with 29 seconds left and then with 21 seconds left.
On their next play, the Tar Heels ran a set to give Paige a look at the top of the key. When that option was taken away, UNC moved the ball to try to find Paige another opportunity. Robert Williams blocked Paige's 3-point attempt from the right corner with eight seconds to play to secure the upset.
Everyone watching knew Paige had to be the one to take that final 3-pointer. There was no one else to take it.
"He's basically the only outside threat that we have right now," Williams said. "That's a limitation that we hate but it's what it is."