The tears welled in Marcus Paige’s eyes and ran down his cheeks. When they went away, he still couldn’t stop shaking and quivering. No one seemed more upset – sadder, angrier, more emotional – than Paige after North Carolina’s 85-83 loss against Iowa State on Sunday night.
Paige, the Tar Heels’ sophomore guard, led his team with 19 points and, as usual, he was more aggressive and more effective in the second half than the first. That’s what Paige does. He’s better the longer a game goes, and he’s especially good late in games, when his team most needs him to be.
That’s probably why Paige took this loss harder than anyone. Because, for once, he didn’t come through at the end.
Luke DeCock, our columnist, did a great job here describing the scene inside the UNC locker room. Paige sat in a corner, surrounded by a horde of reporters and cameras. The turnover he committed with 31 seconds to play – when he left the ground with no place to go with the ball – weighed on him. The turnover led to Iowa State’s go-ahead layup, and eventually the Cyclones won it with another DeAndre Kane layup with 1.6 seconds left.
UNC then ran out of time.
“As a competitor, you always feel like you have a shot,” Paige said, his voice trembling. “If they would have given us point-one seconds, I thought we could have drew something up to have a chance.
“But you know, at the end of the day we had a chance to win. We had possession, we had the ball. We had the ball in my hands with James Michael setting a screen, and that’s worked out for us all year. I just didn’t make the play.”
This is what Paige said later about his turnover:
“I’ve made plays for this team. My teammates trust me in those situations. They wanted me to have the ball, I wanted to have the ball. I didn’t make the play. And at the end of the day, I’m the one that has to go through the next six months thinking about that one play, and how it cost us the game.”
Paige took the blame. That’s what leaders do when things don’t go their way: they take responsibility.
Of course, the Tar Heels never would have been in a position to beat Iowa State if not for Paige. They might not have been in the NCAA tournament without him and, undoubtedly, without Paige they would have lost a lot of games they won.
In the moment, none of that mattered to Paige. All he could think about was his turnover, and losing. And the end of the season.
Back in January, after the Tar Heels’ 0-3 start in the ACC, Paige and James Michael McAdoo sat next to each other on the plane coming back from Syracuse. They talked about how the team needed to change, and how they needed to lead that change in attitude. UNC won 13 of its next 15 games – a stretch that included a 12-game winning streak.
Perhaps no one on the team better understands Paige’s passion than McAdoo. After Paige headed off to the showers on Sunday night, McAdoo received word that Paige was taking the blame for the season-ending loss.
“I’m going to say what I always say,” McAdoo said. “It’s a 40-minute game. I shot an airball on one of my first shots. That lost the game. I mean, you can go down the line. Marcus kept us in the game. And that’s what I say to that. He’s the heart and soul of this team. You can look at every game of the year, especially the bigger games where he just stepped up and led the team to victory. And I love that dude like my brother.
“So that’s just crazy talk.”