Paige Delivers

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Marcus Paige drove around a defender, lifted up a shot that bounced high and softly off the glass and then watched the ball drop as the Smith Center erupted with 8.5 seconds left in No. 18 North Carolina’s 72-71 win over No. 5 Louisville on Saturday.

There was disagreement in the Tar Heel locker room regarding the classification of Paige’s game-winner. Theo Pinson and Brice Johnson were adamant that his shot was a scoop, while J.P. Tokoto and Nate Britt were confident in their assertion that their teammate’s heroics was a floater of the underhanded variety.

Despite that quality debate, all four players detailed in harmony tales of Paige taking and making that same shot, time and time again, in summer pickup and practice.

“He does that all of the time,” Tokoto said. “It’s not a surprise to us. It’s a surprise it went in, though. That was great.”

The surprise is likely found in the difficulty of Paige’s shot.

UNC ran its basic “box” twice in the final minutes. The first possession provided Johnson with a good look in the post that was blocked by Montrezl Harrell. Roy Williams went back to the “box” with 24 seconds remaining and his team trailing 71-70.

Louisville’s matchup zone left center Chinanu Onuaku guarding Paige after a Kennedy Meeks screen at the top of the key with 12 seconds to play. Paige worked around the 6-foot-11, 230-pounder down the left edge of the paint before lofting up his game-winner.

“We went back to that because that’s one of our favorite plays that we think we have a lot of options out of,” Paige told reporters after the game. “They covered it well. I came off the down screen and wasn’t open and then we just went into a pick-and-roll. I didn’t want to settle for a jump shot. I tried to get to the basket. They still defended it well, but I was able to get an angle on the board. This time, instead of like the Notre Dame game, I was able to make a layup at the end and help us out.”

UNC’s 71-70 loss to No. 13 Notre Dame on Monday increasingly moved into the forefront of everyone’s mind as the game clock ticked down. The Tar Heels trailed the Fighting Irish, 69-61, before missing their final eight shots – including a pair of Paige misses in the final minute – in the loss.

On Saturday, UNC trailed 63-50 with 8:43 to play. Only moments earlier Paige had left the court after rolling his right ankle while getting tangled up with Harrell, and it appeared as though the Tar Heels were on their way out of the top-25.

Instead, UNC held Louisville to 3-of-12 shooting and forced three turnovers over the final eight minutes, while connecting on 8-of-13 field goal attempts without committing a turnover.

After a pair of Meeks free throws, freshman guard Joel Berry knocked down a 3-pointer – the make that Williams pointed to as the comeback’s spark - to cut Louisville’s lead to 63-55 with 7:34 to play.

Paige reentered the game on the next possession and soon after drained a 3-pointer, his final points before the game’s final score.

“We know we can execute down the stretch; it’s just a matter of doing it,” Tokoto said. “To do it against the No. 5 team in the country in Louisville is big for us.”

As Paige closed out UNC’s postgame media interviews in the players’ lounge, one Tar Heel surrounded by a horde of reporters, he shared a few laughs, discussed the pain associated with the plantar fasciitis in his right foot and settled the debate regarding his game-winner.

“It was a scoop,” Paige said. “[Eric] Hoots, our video guy, showed me the slo-mo replay and it kind of caught the top of the backboard. And I told him, ‘Hey, that’s what little guys work on all of the time.’ You’ve got to have different angles that you can finish because you can’t always get all of the way to the basket.”

Paige was tabbed ACC Preseason Player of the Year based in large part on his second half exploits a season ago. While he struggled for most of Saturday’s game – 10 points on 4-of-12 shooting – he delivered in crunch time yet again against one of the nation’s top teams.

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