Marcus Paige knew one answer would not make the return trip to North Carolina.
When someone asked Paige what would have happened had the Tar Heel senior and his injured right hand been healthy enough to play Saturday afternoon at the McLeod Center, he did not offer a definitive response.
“That’s the biggest question,” Paige said. ‘I wish I could tell you. But you can sit here and say, ‘what if’ all day. But I didn’t get to play. It was good to see my people. Obviously, I wish the game could have gone differently, but there’s nothing we can do about it when you’re hurt and can’t play.”
Paige returned to his home state Saturday afternoon, and it was everything he could have hoped for – and more. Perhaps too much more. While he sat on the bench, the top-ranked Tar Heels blew a 16-point second-half lead and lost to Northern Iowa, 71-67.
Paige, UNC’s senior point guard, was the reason head coach Roy Williams brought his No. 1 team to Iowa. He wanted to give his star a chance to play in Carolina blue in front of his family and friends. That didn’t happen because of the hand injury suffered a few weeks ago.
“If you’d told me he was going to break his hand and not be able to play, I wouldn’t have scheduled the game,” quipped Williams. “But that’s using that as an excuse and today Northern Iowa beat North Carolina. It didn’t have anything else to do with that.”
So the Tar Heels came to Cedar Falls to take on UNI and head coach Ben Jacobson’s team. Before the opening tip, Paige walked on the floor and received a warm standing ovation from the fans.
“It was very cool,” said the Marion, Iowa native. “Obviously, I couldn’t play, so to at least get acknowledged by the people who came to see me and support me, it was very cool to see that.”
After that, Paige watched as North Carolina carried a 41-32 lead into halftime. Less than three minutes into the second half, the Tar Heels seemed to have the game under control. A Brice Johnson jump shot extended the UNC edge to 50-34 at the 17:10 mark and the Panthers (2-1) seemed to be teetering on the edge of being out of contention.
Instead, after a time out, UNI rose up and rallied.
“We’re fighters, man. We’re fighters,” said Panther point guard Wes Washpun. “Coach Jake called a quick time out there and just told us, ‘Hey, guys, we’re going to have to fight for this one.’”
UNI, behind the 3-point shooting of Matt Bohannon and Paul Jesperson ,plus Washpun’s ability to score on drives to the rim, used a 20-4 run to pull even. Again, Carolina took a lead. Again, UNI came back. Finally, a Bohannon 3-pointer put the Panthers on top for good, at 59-58, with 7:35 to play.
One sequence in the second half told the story of what happened to UNC in the final 20 minutes. Joel Berry II tried to lob a pass crosscourt to a teammate. Instead, Jeremy Morgan jumped, picked off the ball and drew a foul. Morgan’s free throw with 6.1 seconds to go gave UNI a two-possession lead and locked up the upset victory.
“I told Jake (Jacobson) that I felt very happy for him and his ballclub,” Williams said. “I was very disappointed in me, more so than in my team. We acted like a team that had not been coached very well out there.”
The coach pointed to several factors that hurt the Tar Heels Saturday. North Carolina failed to score any second-chance points in the second half after getting six in the first. They also turned over the ball eight times in the last 20 minutes. And UNC couldn’t slow down Washpun, who had 12 of his team-high 21 points in the second half.
Justin Jackson led North Carolina with a career-best 25 points. Kennedy Meeks and Johnson added 10 each. On this Saturday, though, it wasn’t enough.
There was one more question posed to Williams: What’s next for his Tar Heels?
“I don’t have any ... idea about the rest of the season. We’re going to practice tomorrow. We’re going to bust our rear and try to get better.”