Paige Standing Tall

Paige Standing Tall

SAN ANTONIO – Marcus Paige sat tucked away in a corner of the locker room moments following North Carolina's season-ending loss to Iowa State, trying to hold back tears but failing, as he sought to accept blame for the third-round exit.

In comparison to what has become his standard game fare, Paige didn't turn in his best performance at the AT&T Center on Sunday. The sophomore guard needed 16 shots to score 19 points and committed four turnovers. It was also his first game all season without an assist.

Yet it was Paige that promptly answered Iowa State with a 3-pointer after DeAndre Kane gave the Cyclones their largest lead of the game at 38-29 late in the first half. And it was another Paige 3-ball that gave UNC its first lead of the second half at 56-55 with 11:15 to play.

The first question Paige fielded in the locker room centered on the chaotic final seconds, in which Kane drove for the game-winning layup with 1.6 seconds left and the game clock operator failed at his sole job of starting the clock on time in the aftermath.

Paige, however, chose to dwell on his turnover with 31 seconds left and the game tied at 81-81.

"At the end of the day, we had a chance to win," Paige said. "We had possession, we had the ball, and we had the ball in my hands with James Michael setting a screen. That's worked out for us all year. I just didn't make the play."

On that particular play, Paige is correct. And for most everyone watching, there was legitimate surprise that he didn't make the play. Because that's what Paige has done all season long. He's done nothing but make play after play.

Paige had no business thinking UNC could topple Louisville, the defending national champions, without P.J. Hairston by his side back in November. If that 32-point effort on 9-of-12 shooting against the Cardinals placed Paige into the national conversation, his instant classic duel with ACC Player of the Year T.J. Warren at N.C. State three months later cemented his All-American season.

Twenty times this season Paige scored double digits in the second half after managing single digits before halftime, earning him the hash tag moniker, #secondhalfPaige.

So with less than a minute to play and the game tied, the player who deserved the ball had the ball.

"My teammates trust me in that situation," Paige said. "I've come through for them a lot. If I had that play 1,000 more times, I'd be confident in making the play 1,000 times again. I'm sure my teammates would feel the same way, but I just left my feet without anywhere to go with the ball. James Michael wasn't ready for the pass and they got a run-out and a layup on it. That was the game."

While Paige's eyes were swollen in sadness and defeat, McAdoo grew angry when told of his teammate trying to take the blame.

"Marcus kept us in the game; that's what I say to that," McAdoo said. "He's the heart and soul of this team. You can look at every game of the year, especially the bigger games, where he just stepped up and led the team to victory. I love that dude like my brother, so that's just crazy talk."

The Tar Heel locker room was full of similar sentiments.

"He knows what to do at the right time," senior guard Leslie McDonald said. "He's been awesome; just an unbelievable talent, bringing us back and winning games. You saw the N.C. State game. You've seen him in the second half taking over. What an unbelievable player."

Most players make mistakes and it's understood that mistakes happen. Some players make mistakes and it's practically expected. And then there's a distinct few that make mistakes and the rarity of the moment makes that mistake newsworthy.

UNC lost to Iowa State not because of one play on Sunday, but because of a stretch of plays over the final 3:45. The Cyclones closed the game on a 17-7 run and connected on seven of their final eight field goal attempts.

The fact that Paige was intent on accepting blame for his team's loss, however, confirms what most everybody already knew about the scrawny kid from Marion, Iowa.

 

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