Marcus Paige and the legacy of hitting the biggest shot few will remember


HOUSTON — The shot before “The Shot” was, for a fleeting moment, one of the most important — and best — shots in college basketball history.

There’s just not another way to put it.

With only 4.7 seconds remaining in a national championship game in a close game, the stakes were high.

The degree of difficulty was off the charts: a double-clutch, one-footed, 25-foot 3-pointer as seen below. The player who sunk it — Marcus Paige — is one of the greatest point guards in the history of one of the most illustrious programs in college basketball. It was his unbelievable, aggressive performance down the stretch that catalyzed what would be known as one of the great comebacks in college basketball history if the Tar Heels could pull it off.

Marcus Paige's 3-pointer ties the game at 74. (USATSI)
Marcus Paige’s 3-pointer ties the game at 74. (USATSI)

Simply put, Paige’s shot was destined to surpass a 3-pointer by Kansas’ Mario Chalmers in 2008 as the greatest game-tying 3-pointer in the history of the NCAA Tournament, and he knew it.

“I was about 99 percent sure we were going to win the game,” Paige said. “We just had to get through that 4.7 seconds because think about how it would be from their point of view, having a championship in your hands and then having to go to overtime against a team that just clawed back from down 10 and has new life. I thought that was it.

And then, those 4.7 seconds happened. Paige’s miraculous 3-pointer was drowned out in chorus of confetti, fireworks, and celebration. Instead of that shot standing on its own to send the game into overtime, it now will be a footnote in the annals of history, quickly relegated to second place behind Kris Jenkins’ equally-as-magnificent game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Villanova a 77-74 win in the NCAA Championship Game.

It’s a heck of a second place, but it’s second place nonetheless. And that represents the underbelly of the majesty of victory in the NCAA Tournament. The hard part? The part that involves a lot of tears and broken hearts after having a game in the palm of your hand and having it forcibly ripped from you as you watch.

“When you’re a kid growing up, you don’t dream of missing the last second shot, or you don’t dream of the other team beating you at the buzzer,” Paige said. “You dream of having that moment, and that confetti, and seeing your family over there cry tears of joy. Hugging guys that you’ve had blood sweat and tears with for four years, and we were this close to that dream. It’s hard.”

It’s remarkable that Paige was capable of articulating emotion like this so eloquently not even an hour after it happened. In the lockerroom afterward, many of the North Carolina players still had tears in their eyes when the doors opened. Paige, for his part, looked and sounded equally as crestfallen as he answered nebulous questions about how his mindset or about the team. Meanwhile, it’s all but given that all Paige wanted to do was sit there with his teammates and reflect on what’s been a stunning four-year career that came just seconds away from the immortality that a championship provides.

And this championship game was vintage Paige in what will be the final time he wears the blue and white for Carolina. After a so-so first half where he seemed happy to take a backseat to Joel Berry — who scored 15 points and led the Tar Heels to a five-point lead — Paige took over in the second half. He scored 17 of his 21 points after the break with two assists and zero turnovers. Fifteen of those 17 points came in the final nine minutes after Carolina fell behind by three possessions. Seven of those points came in the final 95 seconds when the Heels were still down six, including a crazy play underneath where he missed his own layup, outfought three Wildcat defenders for the ball, and somehow scooped the ball through the hoop.

Any adjective associated with toughness that you want to use to describe his performance would fit. Gutty. Gritty. Tenacious. Dogged. Unrelenting. Paige put his team on his back, and willed it to a chance to win a national championship if it could just get through those meddlesome 4.7 seconds late.

“As the clock got lower and lower and our season becomes on the line, I can’t help it,” Paige said. “It’s something about that moment. I just want to start fighting. If I could fight somebody, I would probably do that if it was within the rules. I just wanted every moment to go up for us and try to extend our season as long as possible. We just came up a little bit short.”

His teammates couldn’t help but note after the game just how unbelievable their senior leader’s performance was, particularly in regard to his toughness.

“He is a winner at everything,” Justin Jackson said. “He fought through all of the struggles, all of the ups and downs, all of the adversity. He really pushed through and that shows how much he really wanted to win. I could not have asked for a better leader than Marcus.”

His coach agreed.

“I’ve coached a lot of guys, but I’ve never coached anybody any tougher than that kid,” Roy Williams said. “I’ve never coached anybody that tried to will things to happen even when he wasn’t playing as well as he could play.”

Indeed, that’s going to be Paige’s legacy. On a North Carolina team that was often questioned for its toughness — clearly incorrectly, given this comeback that went down tonight — Paige provided the heartbeat and creativity that was needed in the biggest moments. He wasn’t the star necessarily. That honor would likely fall to first team All-American Brice Johnson. But he was the soul of a team that nearly won North Carolina’s sixth national title in school history.

After the game, Paige discussed the fact that at programs like North Carolina, only players remembered as champions get a seat at the proverbial table of legends, and how close that was.

“Sean [May] and Bobby [Frasor] talked about getting a seat at the table in Carolina,” Paige said. “There’s only five seats at that table. ’57, ’82, ’93, ’05 and ’09. We had a chair pulled all the way up to that table and we just couldn’t quite get there, so it’s something that will probably haunt me for the rest of my life, thinking about what if or what could be done.”

But Paige should hold his head up high despite the success that eluded him tonight. He bled North Carolina blue for his team, and shouldn’t have to feel as destroyed as he does in this moment.

“It hurts the most because (I) don’t get a chance to do it again,” Paige said. “At some point tonight, I’m going to have to take this jersey off and I’ll never get to be a Tar Heel again.”

Even if it is the final time he’ll be a Tar Heel, Paige gave one heck of a performance to go out on. It was the exact kind of performance that he’ll be remembered for when it’s time to assess his time in Chapel Hill. That legacy is this: Marcus Paige is one of the toughest guards to come along in college basketball over the last decade, and he won’t soon be forgotten by anyone around that program despite the loss he feels now.

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