Marcus Paige was leaning forward in a folding chair, slowly rubbing his right calf. Then he leaned back and exhaled deeply as he was asked another question about T.J. Warren. Paige nodded, answered willingly.
“We were trying to make it tough on him,” the North Carolina guard said. “He was giving us problems all night.”
T.J. Warren walked into a similarly featureless small room in the bowels of the arena, hood pulled over his head, and sat heavily on a bench in a corner. He spoke more softly than Paige, almost a mumble, but with the same respect for his adversary.
“He’s a great scorer, a great player,” the N.C. State forward said. “It was a lot of fun out there playing.”
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They resembled like a couple of boxers, minus the bruises and the bandages, but every bit as exhausted after a scoring duel as enthralling and excruciating as any prize fight.\
Warren had the edge on points. Paige scored the knockout.
Warren missed a late free throw. Paige hit the final layup for an 85-84 win Wednesday.
It’s hard to ask much more than this of any two teams, let alone two that share a state in their name, one arguably the hottest in the nation, the other fighting for its NCAA tournament life. It’s hard to ask much more than this of two players, each the best player on their team, each raising his game to new levels, befitting the stakes.
Warren set a new career-high with 36 points, but it was the 37th that N.C. State would need. He made only the second of two free throws with 7.7 seconds left in overtime, giving N.C. State a one-point lead -- and leaving the door open for one final, fatal strike from Paige.
He took the ball at three-quarters court, maneuvered around a Brice Johnson screen at the top of the key, and laid the ball in with his left hand for a career-high of his own with 35 points.
This after Warren had gotten the better of the final seconds of the first half. After Warren’s would-be game-winner with five seconds to go was blocked and Paige gave North Carolina the lead with two free throws, Leslie McDonald fouled Warren, sending him back to the line with 1.5 seconds to play. Warren made both to send the game to overtime tied 71-71.
Paige had yet another slow first half, and Warren struggled through foul trouble in the second half. But when the game was on the line, in the final few minutes of regulation and in overtime, they exchanged baskets with unabated adrenaline, their teammates deferring to them, both unavoidably caught up in the frenzy.
Warren had 15 of N.C. State’s final 22 points, Paige 15 of North Carolina’s final 19.
“On a subconscious level, there’s a little gamesmanship going on, a little competition,” Paige acknowledged. “We’re both competitors.”
This isn’t the first time Paige and Warren have met like this. They have been doing it for almost a decade, since they were middle-schoolers on the AAU circuit. Ask Paige if he’s seen Warren do this before, and he’ll say this is nothing. Ask Warren if he’s seen this from Paige, and he’ll say he’s seen better.
“I’ve seen Marcus make a lot of tough shots, from AAU events to the college level,” Warren said. “It’s not surprising to see him make those tough shots.”
It came down to the final possession, twice. Warren got it done the first time. Asked to do it again, he faltered. Paige, given his chance, did not.