Marcus Paige might have been joking, but he wasn't lying.
He's back. Absolutely and certainly. Unquestionably.
Returning to the scene of last year's 35-point explosion against N.C. State, Paige didn't put up the same gaudy scoring total. He finished with a still-impressive 23 points Wednesday, but his all-around game and clutch 3-pointers were the difference as North Carolina beat the Wolfpack yet again, the Tar Heels' 17th in the past 18 meetings, 81-79.
Paige had nine assists, no turnovers and four steals, and when State found success going zone in the second half to neutralize Carolina's post production, Paige shot the Wolfpack out of it with two dead-on 3-pointers. His final two free throws, with one second to play, turned out to be decisive - Cody Martin's attempted tip-in of Abdul-Malik Abu's intentionally missed free throw was off by only inches as time expired.
"I've kind of tricked myself into being confident, because I haven't been playing real well, so I have to do that," Paige said. "Having some games where I've played well and had some success has helped me, and now I'm hitting stride. Our team's starting to hit our stride and do what we do well."
Paige had 20 or more points 11 times last season, but this was only his second time clearing that mark this season, and he recorded season-highs in points, assists and steals, a statistical artifact of how long and difficult his season has been.
"I'd like for him to be 6-3, 220, but he's not that," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. "What he is is 165 pounds to 175, and most of it's heart."
There's no doubting Paige's heart. As for the rest of his game, where to start? His shots haven't been falling, opposing defenses have clamped down on him, he has limped around on a cornucopia of right-leg injuries, including painful plantar fasciitis and his confidence seemed to evaporate. The preseason ACC player of the year was barely in line for midseason all-conference honors, let alone national awards.
He might have turned the corner, literally and figuratively, when he was able to get around Louisville's Mangok Mathiang for the winning basket Saturday. After hitting the shot, Paige told his teammates, "I'm back," then made it clear this week that he was just joking around.
The Wolfpack wasn't laughing Wednesday.
"He certainly seems to enjoy playing against us," N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. Paige's career average, in five games against N.C. State, is 18.8 points.
Paige went 5-for-5 from 3-point range Wednesday, his avowed preference for the Wilson ball N.C. State uses, as opposed to North Carolina's Nike model, readily apparent. But there was more than that: The confidence that characterized his game last season, the unrestrained willingness to shoot and shoot again, came and went through the first half of this season. He has it back now. That much is clear.
"I never thought he left," North Carolina forward Brice Johnson said. "He's been here. It's just he hasn't been hitting shots; it just hasn't been going in for him. And then all of a sudden."
The Tar Heels needed that kind of game from Paige, because they wouldn't have won without it. Trevor Lacey started slowly, harassed by the length and energy of J.P. Tokoto, and Ralston Turner was in first-half foul trouble, but together they led a late charge back from a 12-point deficit that brought N.C. State to the brink of overtime, if not victory.
The finish, coming down to N.C. State's near-perfect execution of the missed free-throw play, might not have had quite the same drama of last year's overtime scoring duel between Paige and T.J. Warren, but it wasn't far off.
Paige had been waiting for a game like this. North Carolina had been waiting for a game like this. Whether he meant it or not, Paige was right. He's back.
"I think he was joking," North Carolina guard Nate Britt said, "but honestly, there could have been a lot of truth to that."