North Carolina had made a push but Providence was pushing back, almost defiantly refusing to back down.
With a little less than 11 minutes left to play Saturday in the second half of their NCAA Tournament game at PNC Arena, the Friars’ Ben Bentil knocked in a baseline jumper. The top-seeded Tar Heels led, but just 50-45, the game anything but decided.
Nate Britt missed a 3-point shot on UNC’s next possession, but Marcus Paige was there for the putback.
Moments later, Paige drilled a 3-pointer after a miss by the Friars.
Just like that, the game turned for good. The UNC lead was 55-45, Brice Johnson scored the next eight points and the Tar Heels were on their way to an 85-66 second-round win, on their way to a matchup against Indiana next week in the East Region semifinals in Philadelphia.
With 50.4 seconds remaining and the Tar Heels leading 84-65, Paige left the PNC Arena court for the final time in his four-year career. UNC fans cheered the slender senior guard. Somewhere, N.C. State fans probably rejoiced, remembering Paige torching the Pack in the arena in UNC victories.
“It’s good way to close out here, winning meaningful games,” Paige said, smiling. “That’s pretty cool. This place has been pretty good to me.”
Paige’s most memorable game at PNC Arena was his 35-point outburst as a sophomore, when he dueled the Pack’s T.J. Warren basket for basket in an 85-84 overtime thriller won by the Tar Heels. He followed with a 23-point, 9-assist effort last season, hitting all five 3-point shots in another tight UNC victory.
The Tar Heels topped the Wolfpack 80-68 this season as Paige had a pedestrian 10 points. But he had made his point.
“He has had a lot of success here,” UNC’s Justin Jackson said.
Jackson and Johnson seemed a bit amused when asked about Paige darting in to follow up the Britt miss.
“I thought he was going to go up there and dunk it, he was jumping so high on that putback,” Johnson said.
Jackson said UNC coach Roy Williams harps about the big guys going hard to the offensive glass, but added, “Usually he’s talking about the 3-man, not Marcus, but he got to the boards, got the offensive finish and then came down and hit the tough 3.
“Those are the kind of plays that can change the momentum of a game. We look for him to do things like that. He’s our leader, he’s one of our best players. We’re used to him doing those things.”
Paige’s final line Saturday was 12 points on 4-of-10 shooting from the field. He hit two of his five 3-point shots, missing his last shot at PNC Arena — a 3-point attempt from the left of the key.
Paige began the game with the defensive matchup on Providence’s Kris Dunn, although Williams made somes switches and often had the 6-8 Jackson on the super quick Friars guard. Dunn, who missed the final 11 minutes of the first half after picking up his second foul, finished with 29 points in his final college game.
“He was shooting over me and Nate (Britt) and getting kind of comfortable,” Paige said of Dunn. “That’s the good thing about having versatile players on our roster, we can try a bunch of things and still play our style of basketball.”
It’s on to Philly for Paige and the Tar Heels. North Carolina and Indiana last played in Philadelphia in the NCAA championship game in 1981 — on the day President Reagan survived an assassination attempt in Washington – and the Hoosiers won 63-50.
Paige, quizzed about that 1981 matchup, feigned some ignorance of when the game was played and how it went down.
“Eighty-one?” he said, smiling again. “I think they got us. If I remember correctly, there’s not an ’81 banner in the Dean Dome. We can turn the clock back 30 years for a little revenge, hopefully.
“It will be a great matchup. It’s two storied programs. It will be fun.”