Long-awaited moment arrives for UNC’s Marcus Paige

During the first five minutes of North Carolina's 101-86 victory against Indiana on Friday night – a victory that came amid one of the Tar Heels' best offensive performances ever in the NCAA tournament – the same thought circled Isaiah Hicks's mind, again and again.

“Thank God,” Hicks said later, reciting the thought. “He's here. He's ready.”

Hicks was talking about Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels' senior guard. Hicks and the rest of his teammates had seen Paige do the kind of thing he did on Friday night. They'd seen him put together one of those rare, pure stretches of shooting perfection, when every shot he takes seems to go in.

And yet “it's been a while,” Nate Britt, the junior guard, said of the show Paige put on early in the first half at Wells Fargo Arena, where UNC, the top seed in the East, advanced to an NCAA tournament regional championship game against Notre Dame on Sunday.

Paige finished with 21 points and made a season-high six 3-pointers. All but two of them came during the first five minutes, a brilliant stretch that will be remembered as one of the best of Paige's four seasons at UNC.

Paige made the first of his 3s 34 seconds after the game began. His second one came about three minutes in and his third one less than 2 ½ minutes later. And then, 21 seconds after he'd made his third 3, Paige made his fourth.

“It looked like the basket was an ocean for him,” Theo Pinson, the sophomore forward, said afterward.

Tom Crean, the flummoxed Indiana coach, put it another way.

“Marcus was making video game shots to start the game,” Crean said. “I mean, seriously.”

Paige, who spent an extended portion of his senior season mired in an uncharacteristic shooting slump, had experienced similar bursts. There was the one against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament and another against Notre Dame in the regular season.

There was his 30-point performance at Florida State back on Jan. 4, when he made five of his nine 3-point attempts. And there'd been other memorable runs, too, during his sophomore and junior seasons.

Yet what he did during the first five minutes on Friday night was something else entirely, especially given the stage – with the Tar Heels needing a victory to continue their season and move one game closer to reaching the Final Four in Houston.

“I've been waiting for this moment, in terms of the chance to get to the Final Four, for a long time,” Paige said in the wee hours on Saturday morning, well past midnight. “That's more what my focus has been. I think that's why I played better today is because I had all day to sit around and think about how close we were to getting to our goals.

“So I really wanted to just come out and give our team a lift.”

How's this for a lift: the four 3s that Paige during the first five minutes on Friday night left him with more than he'd made in 25 games this season. During one four-game stretch in January Paige made one 3-pointer, total.

He'd long broken out of that slump that affected his confidence and left him waiting, hoping, for better days that finally arrived. Even so, Paige knew what he'd done early against Indiana was something different.

“After I'd hit two in a row – I haven't made two in a row in a long time,” Paige said. “So to knock down two in a row, I felt like I might mess around and make a couple more. And that's what I did.”

Paige’s early success didn’t just boost his confidence. It spread to his teammates, too.

And his shooting touch seemed to be contagious. The Tar Heels made a season-high 11 3-pointers. They 62.1 percent in the first half -- their fourth-highest in a half -- and Indiana at times looked lost defensively, helpless to stop Paige and his teammates on the perimeter or on the inside.

“We're hard to stop, honestly, when we shoot like that,” said UNC sophomore forward Justin Jackson, who finished with 14 points and was one of five players who scored in double figures. “Because they can't double the bigs. It opens driving lanes up a whole lot. So when we shoot like that, it kind of changes other team's defense, because they can't do what they would normally do.”

The Tar Heels only led by six, 14-8, after Paige's early shooting exhibition. And yet it felt like the lead was significantly larger.

It felt, too, like the theme had been established: That UNC, the worst 3-point shooting team remaining in the NCAA tournament, had found its perimeter touch – that this might just be the Tar Heels' night.

“I think it really just gave a lot of people confidence,” Pinson said of Paige's early success.

At the least, it gave the Tar Heels early control they never relinquished. Paige's third 3 broke an 8-8 tie with about 15 ½ minutes remaining in the first half, and UNC held the lead – often a commanding lead – the rest of the way. By halftime that lead had grown to 11 points, 52-41, and Paige entered the locker room anxious to share a message with his teammates.

He addressed the team before coach Roy Williams did. Paige's message was simple, to the point.

“Marcus – this is his last year,” Hicks said. “He even said it at halftime. He was like, it shouldn't matter what the score is. We've got to play. Our season's on the line.

“Just to hear him say that, our leader, just fired up, ready to play – it's a good thing.”

Paige's place as the Tar Heels' leader has never been in question this season, even amid those shooting woes. Those, though, did have people questioning his on-the-court contributions. All along Paige, a first-team All-ACC player as a sophomore, maintained faith that eventually he'd be back.

He said he was during that game against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament, amid a hot stretch late in the first half of that game. And then came Friday night, when he was the catalyst of an offensive performance that left people flipping through the record books to find perspective.

The 101 points were UNC's most in an NCAA tournament regional semifinal game. Paige's six 3s, meanwhile, tied the school record for most in an NCAA tournament game.

“I've felt really good shooting the ball,” Paige said. “They just haven't gone in, which is a little bit crazy. But that's just – that's what it is. That's the reality. So they felt really good again, today, and I was able to knock down a couple.

“And you know – sometimes they go in.”

And sometimes they go in again and again and again during the first five minutes of a win-or-go-home regional semifinal. Before Friday, the Tar Heels had won 30 games – a lot of them without Paige at his best, and many of them with him searching for a shooting touch that had gone missing.

And though Paige's teammates knew they'd seen this before, nobody in UNC's locker room early Saturday morning could remember the last time Paige put on the kind of exhibition that he did in the first five minutes against Indiana. All they knew is that it happened on Friday.

Paige had been waiting to reach this point, one victory away from a Final Four. He'd been waiting, too, for the kind of run he found himself on – unable to miss early. Both had been a long time coming.

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