Marcus Paige had said more than once in recent weeks that it had been agonizing – his wait to return from a broken bone in his right hand that kept him sitting on the bench, watching, during North Carolina’s first six games of the season.
Then came Tuesday night, and a return against No. 2 Maryland that Paige had been thinking about for more than three weeks. Perhaps the only question when it ended was this: Was it as good of a return as Paige envisioned?
He made his first shot during the Tar Heels’ 89-81 victory – a 3-pointer from the right side. He made his second shot. And then in the second half he made no shortage of important shots – momentum-swinging shots – while Maryland attempted a comeback of its own after trailing by 13 early.
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Paige finished with 20 points, five assists and he likely inspired any number of sore throats and hoarse voices, those among the 20,000 people who filled the Smith Center and screamed every time he made a shot amid a loud, electric environment.
This was early December, the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. It felt like late February, an ACC regular-season championship on the line, in a game between two old ACC rivals that were playing for the first time since Maryland left for the Big Ten following the 2013-14 season.
In the final moments of UNC’s victory, the student section began chanting, “ACC! ACC!” They were celebrating a victory the Tar Heels owed largely to Paige, and his ability to do what he’s done so many times before.
He excelled in the second half, with the pressure rising, the scale of the moment growing. He made one 3-pointer that broke a 55-55 tie with 14 ½ minutes to play. About a minute later, he gave the Tar Heels a 61-59 lead after Maryland had taken its first lead on Melo Trimble’s four-point play.
UNC led by six with 10 ½ minutes remaining and Maryland tied it one minute later. The Tar Heels stretched the lead back out to five and then here came the Terrapins again, cutting it to two on a Trimble three.
Trimble, Maryland’s sophomore guard, put on a show of his own during the second half. He scored 15 points – 12 of them on 3-pointers – during the first 13 minutes after halftime. His ability to make shots kept the crowd anxious, and helped the Terrapins overcome a six-point halftime deficit.
Trimble, who finished with 23 points, didn’t miss his first 3-pointer of the second half until a little less than six minutes remained. On the next possession, Paige saw an opening, drove the lane and was fouled. He made both free throws to give the Tar Heels an 80-74 lead with 5 ½ minutes remaining.
Moments later, after the Terrapins missed a 3-point attempt from the right corner, UNC took an 83-74 lead on Joel Berry’s 3-pointer with 4 minutes, 53 seconds remaining. Amid a deafening roar, Maryland coach Mark Turgeon called a timeout.
Paige’s return provided the first glimpse of UNC at full strength – the first real look at the team that was picked No. 1 in the Associated Press’ preseason top 25 poll. Perhaps it was Paige’s first game back or maybe it was the shine of the stage – playing against the nation’s second-ranked team in a nationally-televised game – but whatever the reason, the Tar Heels played an intensity they’d often lacked.
UNC in the first half twice led by 13 points. In the second, with Trimble making shot after shot and with Maryland time and again attempting to turn the momentum in its favor, the Tar Heels kept calm and repeatedly responded.
Paige’s presence helped. He made the kind of shots he often has in tense situations. Justin Jackson, the sophomore forward, made a 3-pointer that broke a tie, too, and Berry’s three – the one that gave UNC a nine-point lead with five minutes to play, might have been the most important shot of the game.
Moments later, the “ACC, ACC” chant began. The student section filed out after it ended and one who’d been sitting in it walked out saying, “My voice is gone.”