When a dream dies: UNC’s Marcus Paige prepares to be haunted after heartbreak against Villanova

Already the what-ifs haunted Marcus Paige, the thought of how things might have been different – if only. Paige hadn’t had time to process it, hadn’t had time to sift through the debris of a demolished dream, and yet those small moments played over in his mind.

“If I make the first free throw that I take,” Paige, the Tar Heels’ senior guard, said after his team’s 77-74 defeat on Monday night against Villanova in a national championship game for the ages. “Or if we get across the lane and stop them from getting a backdoor cut or if we can wall (Villanova center) Daniel Ochefu one time and not let him get to his jump hook or (if) pick up Kris (Jenkins) at the end.

“Those are the only things I think about.”

Well that wasn’t entirely true. Paige thought plenty about how close the Tar Heels were.

How this was nearly their moment, and his moment, and how UNC nearly won its sixth NCAA championship on Monday night. Instead, though, it endured perhaps the most heartbreaking defeat in school history.

Here’s how it happened, as if anyone needs to be reminded: Villanova built a 10-point lead with about 5 ½ minutes remaining. Then UNC, little by little, whittled its deficit thanks to Paige and Brice Johnson, two seniors – roommates and best friends – who refused to allow UNC to go quietly.

And so the Tar Heels trailed by eight points and then six and then three and then by one point, twice, until Villanova led by three, again, with 13 seconds remaining. UNC had possession, time ticking away, when Paige found himself with the ball to the right of the top of the key. Amid defenders he jumped and double-clutched and unleashed a wild, off-balance shot that went in with 4.7 seconds to play.

Then it was tied: 74-74. Villanova called a timeout. Paige’s teammates mobbed him at midcourt. The UNC supporters at NRG Stadium launched souvenir seat cushions in the air, creating a storm of yellow rectangles.

Paige had just made one of the most memorable shots in NCAA championship game history and there wasn’t any doubt in his mind then: UNC would win the national championship. As long as it could keep Villanova from scoring at the end of regulation, UNC would win in overtime. Paige was sure of it.

“Because think about how it would be from their point of view,” Paige said later, “to have the championship in your hands and then you have to go to overtime against a team that just clawed back from down 10, and has a new life. So, you know, I thought that was it.”

Except that wasn’t it. What happened next will be played and replayed every March, and early April, for years and decades to come. Villanova inbounded to Ryan Arcidiacono, who hurried across midcourt. He passed to Kris Jenkins, the 6-6 junior forward who had thrown the inbounds pass and was trailing Arcidiacono on the play.

Jenkins didn’t hesitate. Open, he released a long 3-pointer from the right side.

It went in as the horn sounded and while the red light flashed behind the basket. Almost immediately fireworks went off and confetti fell and paper streamers covered the court. Paige threw up his arms a bit and took a few steps and then bent forward, his hands in his face. It was over, and moments after he’d given the Tar Heels life with a dramatic shot of his own.

How to explain it – the feeling in that moment? How to explain going from the emotional peak to the abyss? Here was Paige afterward, trying to put it into words:

“As soon as (Jenkins) got it off, all you can do is pray when the ball is in the air. Felt like it was in the air forever, and (he) just knocked it down and the fireworks go off right then and the moment that you have been clawing for, fighting every day for, hoping for, dreaming about, just goes away, like that fast.

“And it’s just hard to describe.”

In his final college game Paige scored 21 points. Seventeen of those came in the second half.

Three of those came on the 3-pointer with a little less than five seconds left. So many times during his years at UNC, Paige had made a shot like that – a shot to make a difference late in the game.

There was the game-winning layup in overtime at N.C. State during his sophomore season. The one he made to beat Louisville during his junior season. His final 3 on Monday night, though, was perhaps the most important in his time at UNC.

It immediately became one of the most dramatic moments in the history of the national championship game. And then was upstaged by Jenkins’ shot, which is perhaps second only to N.C. State’s Lorenzo Charles’ dunk in 1983 in the pantheon of great moments in championship game history.

The final five seconds included one 3-pointer to tie the game. And one to win it at the buzzer.

“I can’t even describe it,” Johnson, the senior forward, said afterward. “It hurts. I’d rather get beaten by 30. I don’t like losing that way, especially in a game like that. I’d rather them beat us the way they did Oklahoma (in the national semifinals), to be honest with you.

“I’d rather them just beat the crap out of us.”

Johnson, like most of his teammates, was in no mood to talk. He spoke quietly, head down, eyes red, voice soft. Somber.

Losing locker rooms in the NCAA tournament are always quiet, sad places. Inside UNC’s on Monday night, though, sadness and shock co-mingled. UNC coach Roy Williams and some members of his staff sat outside of the locker room, blank expressions on their faces, staring away, alone with their thoughts.

Earlier Williams had been asked about Paige. This is what Williams said:

“I’ve coached a lot of guys, but I’ve never coached anybody any tougher than that kid. I’ve never coached anybody that tried to will things to happen even when he wasn’t playing as well as he could play.”

Williams wasn’t done. He described UNC’s last offensive play of the season – the Paige 3:

“We ran (isolation) for him the last one. We did have another option, but he was the best option. I wanted the ball in his hands. It’s the kind of thing, I just sit back and understand the kind of youngster, not just basketball player, but kind of youngster that I’ve been able to coach for four years.”

Williams’ press conference was over then. Paige and Joel Berry, the sophomore point guard who’d scored 20 points, had joined Williams there. Paige went from that experience to a chair toward the back of the locker room.

Immediately he had company: four TV cameras, their lights shining brightly. More than a dozen microphones. Paige spoke for more than 14 minutes. After his shot, he said, he felt “99 percent sure” that UNC would win.

And then it was over. An agonizing loss.

“At some point tonight I’m going to have to take this jersey off and I’ll never get to be a Tar Heel again, in the moment,” Paige said.

So many thoughts ran through his mind. Trips and practices and the long journey to here.

“That’s done,” Paige said. “That’s over. We’ll never get that back, and the memory now we’ll have, it’s one half-step shorter than the memory we wanted to have. We worked so hard for this goal. And it’s like someone just came up and took it from you at the last second.”

He knew it wasn’t like that. Not exactly, anyway.

He could appreciate the shot that Jenkins, the adopted brother of UNC junior guard Nate Britt, made at the end. And Paige could even appreciate being on the wrong side of history, and being a part of what’s likely to be remembered as one of the greatest games in NCAA tournament history.

And yet, Paige said, this defeat was “something that will probably haunt me for the rest of my life.”

The crowd of reporters around him had thinned now. About 40 minutes had gone by since Jenkins’ shot.

Paige wore a towel around his neck and he still had his jersey on. He had dreamed of the kind of moment he’d experienced on Monday night. Growing up in Iowa, he’d imagined it so many times: making an important shot for UNC, his dream school, late in the national championship game.

And so it happened. Paige lived that moment on Monday night. And then lived through the other side.

“You don’t dream of a team beating you at the buzzer,” Paige said. “You dream of having that moment and that confetti and seeing your family over there crying tears of joy and hugging guys that you’ve had blood, sweat and tears with for four years.

“That’s what you dream of. And we were this close to that dream.”

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