Marcus Paige’s performance one of all-time greatest for North Carolina player against NC State

acarter@newsobserver.comFebruary 27, 2014 

— On his way back into the locker room Marcus Paige looked to the rafters, shook his head and softly said, “Oh, my God.” It was almost a sigh.

A North Carolina fan asked him to sign a hat, and he did, and when Paige was among his teammates again one announced his presence.

“Everybody move out the way,” forward Brice Johnson said, implying with a sense of humor that Paige, a sophomore guard, needed some space.

It was late Wednesday inside the depths of N.C. State’s PNC Arena, and Paige had just scored 35 points – the final two of which gave the Tar Heels an 85-84 overtime victory against Wolfpack. Listening to Johnson’s shtick, Paige smiled. He said space wasn’t necessary, though.

He was comfortable where he was, his chair backed up to his locker, surrounded by the microphones and cameras and questions, again, about how he seemed to flip a switch during the second half. The passage of time will frame Paige’s performance and put it in the proper perspective, and already it’s starting to do that.

Members of the North Carolina athletic communications office spent part of Thursday pouring over records, thumbing through old box scores and media guides. What they found wasn’t surprising – Paige’s performance was among the best ever for a North Carolina player against N.C. State.

The Tar Heels and Wolfpack have played 226 times, and only twice before had a North Carolina player scored more points than Paige did Wednesday. Bobby Lewis, an All-American guard, scored 36 during a 77-60 victory against the Wolfpack on Feb. 14, 1967.

A little more than 30 years later, Antawn Jamison, an All-American forward, also scored 36 during a 74-60 victory at N.C. State. Lewis and Jamison, like Paige, had their way against N.C. State on the road. The first two came at Reynolds Coliseum.

Unlike Paige, though, Lewis and Jamison led their teams to relatively easy victories. Wednesday night’s wasn’t decided until the very end, moments after Paige made a layup, high off the glass, with nine-tenths of a second remaining in overtime.

Coach Roy Williams described Paige as “a competitive rascal.” Williams has described Paige before as a “tough nut,” too, and maybe it was fitting Paige’s best collegiate game came on the same floor where he endured his greatest humiliation.

A season ago, Paige struggled to stay in front of Lorenzo Brown, a former N.C. State point guard. Paige appeared lost defensively, and he lacked confidence on offense. It was only after that game, a 91-83 defeat, that Paige began to improve and to develop into the player he has become.

Still, Paige took a while to get going Wednesday. At halftime, he had four points, and he was 2-for-6 from the field. Then the Wolfpack played some zone, which allowed Paige open looks on the perimeter.

He made his first 3-pointer midway through the second half. And then another. And another.

Paige said it was “big” for him – N.C. State’s decision to play zone. He had room to shoot. When he made shots, his confidence began to grow. And soon he was putting together another memorable second half – one of several during the past month or so.

In ACC games, Paige is averaging 5.1 first-half points and 11.7 during the second. He has increased his scoring from the first half to the second in 13 of North Carolina’s 15 conference games, and in seven of those he has more than doubled his first-half scoring.

He had done this kind of thing before, then. Yet he hadn’t, either – not to the extent he did it Wednesday.

“I might have to put this one at the top,” said Paige, who scored 31 points after halftime. “I know it took some overtime to add onto it, but honestly I wasn’t even thinking about that. Now that I can reflect on it, I was able to get hot. And I felt like the rim was this big in the second half.”

When he said “this big” he made a circle with his arms wide enough for a beach ball.

Paige said he never had been on a streak like the one he found himself on after halftime Wednesday, when he made all seven of his 3-pointers. Williams, though, remembered one time in high school when Paige scored 18 points within three minutes.

It was like that at times Wednesday, in one of the oldest rivalries in the ACC. It remained unknown Thursday how many times a North Carolina player had scored 31 points after halftime. But in a series more than 200 games old, it was clear Paige’s performance ranked among the greatest.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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