His Tuesday began like so many other days had during the past few weeks – with a long wait. The end was approaching, though, and Marcus Paige could sense that, at least. He was anxious to play his first game.
“This is, like, the longest day ever,” Paige, the North Carolina senior guard, said after he led No. 9 UNC to an 89-81 victory against No. 2 Maryland on Tuesday night. And he was only referring in part to the time, now about midnight after an intense victory in an electric environment at the Smith Center.
In his first game after recovering from a hand injury Paige finished with 20 points, five assists and one memorable post-game introduction to J. Cole, his favorite rapper and one who was in attendance on Tuesday. Paige afterward sounded nearly as excited about that as he was anything else.
“He's like number one for me, in terms of hip-hop artists,” Paige said. “And Kennedy (Meeks) pointed it out to me, like in the middle of a defensive possession. I'm talking to him to get through a screen and he's like, 'Yo – J. Cole just walked in, he's sitting over there.'
“So I had to look real quick.”
It was just another moment in a return that was likely better than any Paige could have scripted. After Paige suffered a broken bone in his right hand days before the start of the season he missed UNC’s first six games. All along, he hoped to be back for this, the game against No. 2 Maryland.
Then it became reality in recent days, when doctors concluded that the third metacarpal in his right hand had healed well enough for him to play. His clearance brought more waiting, though, what with the made-for-TV 9:30 p.m. tip-off time on Tuesday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
Paige said that during the day he “felt like a freshman again.” Instead he was a senior, anxious to begin his final college season, ready to join his teammates who had played on without him during the first few weeks of the season.
“We go through our regular routine, I get some shots up, look at my clock and I've still got, like, five hours before the game,” Paige said. “So it's like, I didn't know what to do. I'm just sitting here waiting, and obviously I'm nervous.
“I was nervous for this game. It was good nerves. A lot of energy. A lot of excitement.”
When Paige was introduced in UNC's starting lineup he received a loud, long ovation. Then the game began and it took less than a minute for him to take his first shot, and make it: a 3-pointer from right side.
He made his second shot a few minutes later. Things started to feel normal again. The nerves subsided. His hand felt fine, he said, and he didn't notice the light protective pad on the back of it, or that his two middle fingers were taped together.
“I felt better than I thought I would,” Paige said. “I didn't necessarily care about how many points I scored or anything like that, so I can't say that I played better than I thought I would, because if I'm on the court I expect to be productive.
“But my body felt better than I thought it would coming off of that break.”
That was the among the most important questions surrounding Paige's return: Would he be in shape or would there be any rust? Among the other questions: How would he fit into a team that had played six games without him? And how would others adapt to his return?
Some of the most definitive answers came in the second half, after Maryland, which showed resolve while the decibels rose inside the Smith Center, had erased a 13-point deficit. Paige made one 3-pointer with 14 ½ minutes away to break a 55-55 tie. About a minute later, he made another 3.
That one came moments after the Terrapins took their first lead, 59-58, on a four-point play from Melo Trimble, the sophomore guard who finished with a game-high 23 points. Those two Paige 3s inspired roars that might have damaged some eardrums among those in attendance at the Smith Center.
All the while, UNC coach Roy Williams, who by then had tossed his jacket aside, urged his team to maintain its intensity, which was at a season-high with Paige back. That might have been the greatest difference with Paige: his return seemed to inspire his teammates to play harder.
“I think they did get energy from Marcus,” Williams said. “I think they got a great deal of energy from our crowd. We haven't had the best crowd so far this year, but they were sensational tonight.”
It was only an early-December non-conference game but it had the feel of one in late February between two teams vying for the ACC regular season championship. In another time, those could have been the stakes this season for UNC and Maryland, which left the ACC for the Big Ten in 2014.
Williams compared it to an “old ACC tournament game.” Paige, meanwhile, said it felt like “the middle of January.”
And in many ways, he looked like the same old Paige after missing the first three weeks of the season. During his years at UNC he has earned a reputation for making clutch shots amid tense circumstances in second halves.
It was the same as always on Tuesday, when Paige scored 13 of his 20 points in the second half. In addition to the points and assists he finished with two steals, one turnover and one aborted alley-oop attempt in the first half that instead turned into a Brice Johnson dunk.
On that play, after a steal at mid-court, Johnson passed ahead to Paige, who was calling for the alley-oop. The pass was high, though, and so Paige relayed it back to Johnson, who finished with a dunk that prompted a Maryland timeout with UNC leading 30-19.
Paige said he hadn't called for an alley-oop since he was in high school, “on the playground.”
Johnson, who finished with 16 points, offered a sheepish smile when he described the play.
“I mean, I tried to get it to him in the right spot, but then I didn't want to overthrow it because he's not as tall as I am,” he said. “... I'll work on it.”
The victory leaves UNC with some things to work on. It closed the first half poorly after building that 13-point lead. It struggled at the free throw line late, though Maryland didn't take advantage of the misses after the Tar Heels went ahead by nine points with a Joel Berry 3-pointer with five minutes to play. UNC then led by as many as 11 and the Terrapins never cut UNC’s lead to less than six points.
Overall, though, for the first time this season the Tar Heels provided a glimpse of their potential with Paige. His presence affected his team in ways large and small and the most noticeable difference, said Johnson, “was just his energy.”
“It’s weird not having him,” Johnson said. “It was the first time I've been here and not played with him on the court.”
After a long wait came more waiting, given the late tip-off on Tuesday night. It gave Paige a chance to work on a paper due on Wednesday in a class about the global economy – “that added to the nerves and anxiety for today,” Paige said of the assignment – and then, about eight hours before the game began, Paige sent a text to his teammates.
“He was like, 'Man, we've got eight hours to go and I can't wait,'” Johnson said. “I'm ready to get back out there.”
After a while, finally, it was time.