Following T.J. Warren’s free throw to give N.C. State an 84-83 lead in overtime, Paige had one last opportunity to answer his competitor. UNC’s sophomore guard had answered Warren four previous times in the final seven minutes of play and it was understood by everyone watching in-person or at home that he would take the potential game-winner.
It took Paige three seconds to run from free throw line to free throw line up the right side of the court. The play called for Brice Johnson to set a high screen and Paige brushed his teammate on the way by, giving Desmond Lee no window to squeeze through. N.C. State center Jordan Vandenberg followed James Michael McAdoo to the right corner for a split second, but it was long enough to prevent the seven-footer from hedging out and redirecting Paige’s angle.
“With that much time left, you want to try to get an early ball screen somewhere in between halfcourt and the 3-point line and then just attack and have shooters in the corner,” Paige told reporters following his team’s 85-84 victory. “But once I got the step on my guy and saw Vandenberg late to help, I wasn’t giving it up.”
Paige found himself in a 1-on-1 situation with Warren down the left side of the lane. Paige used his body to absorb contact and lifted a floater with his left hand off the glass for a game-winning layup with 0.9 seconds left on the clock.
It would have been uncharacteristic for this game – one of the best in this rivalry’s 226th-game history – to end with someone other than Paige or Warren playing the hero.
After slow starts – Paige managed four points in the first half; Warren scored 10 – the two ACC Player of the Year candidates isolated themselves into a duel of haymakers over the final 25 minutes. The duo combined for 57 points on 19-of-30 shooting over the final 25 minutes.
Paige scored 31 points on 9-of-15 shooting, including a 7-of-10 effort from 3-point range, after halftime. Those seven 3-pointers are the most by a Tar Heel after halftime since Wayne Ellington made seven against Miami in ‘09.
For the game, he scored a career-high 35 points on 11-of-21 shooting (7-of-12 from 3) with six rebounds and five assists.
“The little fellow was off the charts; that’s just unbelievable,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said during his postgame press conference. “Marcus did not play very well in the first half but in the second half that’s just about as good as an exhibition as I’ve ever seen.”
Paige scored in double-digits in the second half for the 12th time this season after scoring four or fewer points in the first half.
“I just want to play better in the first half to help my team, but it keeps ending up that I get into a rhythm more in the second half,” Paige said. “I figure out what’s going on and I can attack more effectively. It didn’t hurt that I really started finding my stroke from the 3-point line tonight.”
Warren scored 26 points on 10-of-15 shooting after the break.
N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried’s decision to switch to a zone early in the second half proved fatal. After UNC had worked the ball inside consistently to cut its nine-point halftime deficit to 37-36 with 13:45 to play, the Wolfpack packed it in and dared the Tar Heels to beat them from the outside.
UNC settled for jumpers on its next four possessions – missing two from long range – as N.C. State increased its lead back to six points. Those open looks, however, allowed Paige to find his rhythm and he drilled three 3-pointers over a five-possession span to pull his team back within one point.
“Once you see the ball go through a couple of times as a shooter, you kind of lick your chops a little bit and you’re ready to go,” Paige said. “That helped – getting a couple of clean open looks with my feet set at the rim. That was good.”
Paige scored UNC’s final seven points of regulation, including a pair of free throws with 3.6 seconds that appeared to secured a 10th-straight victory. Leslie McDonald’s mind-boggling foul of Warren with 1.5 seconds left ultimately forced overtime, although Paige’s deep 3-ball at the buzzer fell short.
“I thought he was going to make that one with 0.8 of second to play,” Williams said. “I really thought that was going in. That would’ve been an exciting way to finish it, too.”
There was more dueling to be had, however. Warren scored six straight points to open overtime before Paige scored eight of UNC’s next 10 points to pull within 83-81 with 42 seconds left. McAdoo tied the game out of a box set and Warren made one of two free throws with 7.7 seconds to set up Paige’s drive into rivalry lore.
“You could just tell that he wanted to win this one so bad,” McDonald said. “We just kept feeding him and feeding him and he hit the last-second shot, so my hat’s off to him.
“We all wanted it, but it seems like he wanted it a little bit more.”