Marcus Paige had done this sort of thing before, so many times, yet never before on this kind of stage, under this kind of pressure, with these kinds of stakes. And so after a victory unlike any he'd experienced he allowed himself, for once, to bask in the moment.
“I have to be able to appreciate it,” Paige, the North Carolina junior guard, said on Saturday after Tar Heels' 87-78 victory against Arkansas on Saturday night – a victory that sends UNC back to an NCAA tournament regional semifinal for the first time since 2012. “After being so close last year and then I think we were even up on Kansas my freshman year at halftime … (and) last year was tough.”
And tougher on no one more, perhaps, than Paige, whose late turnover a season ago contributed to UNC's loss against Iowa State in the round of 32. This time, in the same game in which UNC's season had ended the past two seasons, Paige atoned for a moment that had weighed on him for a year.
He smiled when he said he'd exorcised his demons and his teammates smiled, too, when they thought about his nickname - “Second Half Marcus,” which he earned a season ago during a long line of clutch second-half performances. Yes, the Tar Heels like to laugh about that one. Sometimes they'll bring it up after the kind of thing they saw on Saturday, when Paige scored 20 of his 22 points after halftime.
“After the game, I say, 'Oh, we saw second-half Marcus come out for the first time in a while,'” said Brice Johnson, the junior forward.
Johnson, UNC's second-leading scorer this season, ended the game on the bench after having fouled out. So, too, did Kennedy Meeks, the Tar Heels' other starting post player. He left the game late with a knee injury that coach Roy Williams hopes is only a sprain.
Isaiah Hicks, Williams' first post player off the bench, fouled out, too. Which made what Paige did in the second half all the more significant, because he was left with no choice. UNC's primary scoring options on the interior – Johnson and Meeks – were in foul trouble throughout against Arkansas.
And, for a while, Paige found himself in the kind of shooting funk that often troubled him back in January and February when the plantar fasciitis in his right foot most bothered him. At halftime on Saturday he had made just one of his eight attempts from the field. He had scored two points.
“We weren't worried about it,” Justin Jackson, the freshman forward, said afterward. “I think me, Brice and him combined for four of 20 in the first half. So coach told us in the second half, take a split-second longer and knock down those shots. And I knew I was telling myself the next one is going in.
“And I know he was telling himself the same thing.”
The game turned for Paige when he made a 3-pointer – his first – with about 13 ½ minutes to play. It gave UNC a 54-52 lead after Arkansas had just taken its second one-point lead of the half.
Then the Razorbacks did that again, and led by one, and the UNC answered again with Paige, who this time made a pair of free throws. The Tar Heels never trailed again. After those free throws he made a difficult layup in the lane and was fouled and completed the three-point play.
Then came a 3-pointer to extend UNC's lead to seven, and another 3 to extend the lead to 10. And all of a sudden, it was Second-Half Marcus again, doing what he's so often done, though never quite like this.
“It's not the best,” Johnson said of where this second-half performance ranked among Paige's other memorable ones. “But it's probably top five. I'd probably say the best would be against State last year when he had 30-something points. I mean, that was probably the best one.
“But it's just – he's a great player. Sometimes he doesn't make it but then other times he can't miss.”
It wasn't just Paige. UNC successfully defended Bobby Portis, the SEC Player of the Year. A smooth 6-foot-11 forward who can shoot from the perimeter and penetrate for layups made to look easy, Portis made just five of his 15 attempts from the field and finished with 14 points.
And in the second half, in addition to Paige's resurgence, Jackson played well, too, and J.P. Tokoto, the junior forward, thrived in a variety of ways in UNC's small lineup – one that Williams used out of equal parts necessity and strategy. Paige, though, was the catalyst.
The 3-pointer he made with 13 ½ minutes to play gave him his first points of the second half. It was also the first shot he'd made since a layup with a little less than 18 minutes remaining in the first half.
So in the final 13 ½ minutes, Paige scored 20 points, made three 3-pointers and went 9-for-9 from the free throw line. He might have had better second halves, as Johnson said, but rarely has Paige put together stretches comparable to what he did during the final 13 ½ minutes on Saturday night.
He saved his best for last, all the while recognizing that this could be UNC's last game of the season. The sense of finality never left him and in some ways – a lot of ways – the loss against Iowa State a season ago drove him.
“At this point in the year you don't want your last game to be played poorly and this could have been the last game for us,” he said.
Instead UNC lived on. Paige had experienced these kinds of performances before but never with this kind of outcome – a victory to send UNC to the NCAA tournament West Regional, where on Thursday in Los Angeles the Tar Heels will play either Wisconsin, the No. 1 seed, or No. 8 Oregon.
Paige and most of his teammates have never been to a Sweet 16 before. He spoke afterward about how the Tar Heels “finally got over that hump.” He spoke of going back to Chapel Hill and practicing some more in the Smith Center.
There's one more trip to make, out west, and at least one more game to play.
“It's a great feeling and it's so liberating and I don't know, I'm just very happy,” Paige said. “I'm not jumping up and down right now but I'm very happy.”