Paige’s final 3-point shot bounced off the rim with seven seconds remaining, pushing his shooting total to 2-of-15 (2-of-11 from 3) to go along with a pair of free throws in accounting for his eight points. Wednesday’s ACC home opener marked the second game in a row that Paige had failed to reach double figures after 13 straight with 11 or more to open the season.
In Sunday’s 73-67 loss at Wake Forest, the two-time national player of the week scored eight points on 3-of-12 shooting (1-of-8 from 3).
UNC head coach Roy Williams asked Paige the questions everyone wanted to ask at practice following the loss in Winston-Salem.
“Am I playing you too many minutes? Is it stamina? Were you hurt? Or was it just a bad game?”
Paige’s response, true to form, was that Sunday was in fact a “terrible” game.
He didn’t have an answer when asked a similar question standing in front of a media horde following Wednesday’s loss.
“Honestly, I don’t know,” Paige said. “I’ve got to do better. I’ve got to make shots. I can’t shoot 2-for-11 or whatever I shot – I can’t do that if we’re going to be successful. That’s two games in a row, so I’ve got to change the way I’ve been playing.”
Three months ago, the sophomore guard was thought to be UNC’s third scoring option behind P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo. He promptly moved into the top dog position and became a household name – at least in ACC territory – in lighting up defending national champion Louisville for 32 points on 9-of-12 shooting two weeks into the season.
Add in a 21-point second-half performance in UNC’s 82-77 win over Kentucky three weeks later and the hype surrounding Paige swelled to All-American levels.
The chances that his elite level of play would continue, however, were slim. With minimal help on the perimeter, Paige - playing out of position to begin with - earned a defensive target on his back while logging significant minutes.
He’s averaging 35.3 minutes per game, which is currently on pace to be the most of any player during the Williams era at UNC. Raymond Felton averaged 34.6 minutes per game in 2003-04. Williams told reporters earlier this season that his hope was to keep Paige’s minutes down around 32 per contest, but Hairston’s dismissal has left the 11th-year UNC head coach without any other option.
“Maybe I have played him too many minutes,” Williams said during his postgame press conference.
And while Paige’s recent statistics have increased the media scrutiny of his play, his superhero effort against the Cardinals represents the high water mark to date.
Through the first five games of the season, Paige averaged 22.4 points on 53.1 percent shooting, including a 53.1 percent mark from 3-point range. Since claiming the Hall of Fame Tip-Off title in Connecticut, the sophomore is averaging 14.3 points on 34.7 percent shooting, including a 26.6 percent effort from beyond the arc.
Credit Paige for playing his best late over the past 10 games. He’s averaging 9.5 points on 39.2 percent shooting in the second half compared with 4.8 points on 28.0 percent in the first half during that stretch.
Even so, his production has waned in recent weeks, which does not bode well for North Carolina as it embarks on an arduous ACC journey.
“You saw Marcus in the first couple of games – he was hot,” McDonald said. “His scoring isn’t as prominent now, but we’ve got to get over that. He’s going to learn that players are going to have their best games, they’re going to be hot, and then some games they’re not. That’s just the way of basketball. You’ve just got to keep looking forward and keep being aggressive.”
Paige is as articulate a basketball player as it comes, and his knowledge and understanding of the game grows even more evident as his career progresses. That foundation has often allowed Paige to keep a positive demeanor even following difficult losses, but that shield was transparent as midnight approached on Wednesday.
“I try to have the ‘next play’ mentality, but it’s tough when you literally can’t buy a bucket at times,” Paige said. “My teammates look for me to be aggressive. If I’m being aggressive and not making shots, that’s not helping us.
“I just have to do better. I’ve got to find a way to help the team instead of missing jump shots.”