RALEIGH — Marcus Paige jogged out of the locker room and back onto the court for a TV interview late Wednesday. He moved past adoring North Carolina fans who clapped for him and yelled his name, and he walked along while a couple of Wolfpack fans who still remained cursed him. Paige gave a slight nod.
He was a hero to some, a villain to others but, regardless, he now was a part of history, too, after his layup with less than a second left gave the Tar Heels an 85-84 overtime victory against the Wolfpack. Paige’s shot silenced a euphoric crowd, one that showed up with no shortage of pent-up frustration, and joy at UNC’s recent history of off-the-court trouble.
Signs that people held up referenced academic scandals that have tarnished UNC’s reputation. One referenced arrests of P.J. Hairston and Raymond Felton, a former UNC guard. Paige, who recently earned Academic All-American honors, was asked if he could spell his name.
Inside the UNC locker room, he had a laugh at that one.
“The way it ended – it was great,” he said. “Especially in this environment. I don’t know what it is about us, but they really hate us, and it feels so good for them to have the game in their hands and for us to show resiliency and come take it from” them.
He paused, changed his thought mid-sentence and said: “I think it’s M-A-R-C-U-S, in case you were wondering. I can spell my name.”
Paige finished with 35 points – the most he has scored in college – and 31 one of those came after halftime, as did all seven of his 3-pointers. Paige has made a habit of this kind of thing this season – memorable second halves, ones when he comes alive offensively and carries the Tar Heels.
This, though – this was different. Paige brought UNC back twice – once midway through the second half, when it seemed like N.C. State might be pulling away, and then in overtime, after the Wolfpack built an early six-point lead behind T.J. Warren, a sophomore forward who proved Paige’s equal when it came to spectacular play.
Paige’s first 3-pointer, which came with about 11 minutes to play, cut the Wolfpack’s lead to 44-41. He made another about two minutes later that cut a seven-point deficit to four, and less than a minute later he made another 3 to cut the Wolfpack’s lead to one.
Paige’s fourth 3-pointer of the half came a little more than two minutes after his third, and it gave the Tar Heels a 56-55 lead. Paige made some open looks earlier in the half, but after he made his first couple N.C. State didn’t let him free easily.
Still, he found space regardless. Off of screens. Off the dribble.
Brice Johnson, UNC’s sophomore forward, tried to describe what he’d seen but words failed him for a moment.
“That’s the, that’s the – I mean,” Johnson said, searching. “I can’t even put that performance into words. That was – that’s the greatest I’ve ever seen him play … proud to call him my brother.”
At one point spanning regulation and overtime, Paige scored 10 consecutive points for UNC. He scored the final seven of the Tar Heels’ points in regulation, and then he made a 3-pointer after Warren, who finished with 36 points, scored the first six points of overtime.
Paige’s first 3-pointer of overtime cut N.C. State’s lead to three, and he made another to cut the Wolfpack’s lead back to three with 1 minute, 22 seconds remaining. That was the final shot he made from the field, until the one he made to win the game with less than a second to play.
“Last possession, coach just told me go get the ball and try to make something happen,” Paige said of coach Roy Williams. “Brice Johnson set a good screen at the top of the key, and I was able to get by (Jordan) Vanderberg – tried to put my body into him and I was able to get the bounce.”
The Wolfpack’s final heave fell short, and Paige and his teammates ran off the court with their 10th consecutive victory. Later, Paige thought about his final shot. He’d received the inbounds pass with seven seconds to play, the Wolfpack leading by a point after Warren made one of his two free throws.
His only decision was whether to pull up for a jump shot, he said, or penetrate.
“And once I saw a window,” Paige said, “The rest is history.”
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @andrewcarter