Paige on the Mend

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Marcus Paige joked with his teammates that he was back after his game-winning layup against Louisville earlier this month. As No. 13 North Carolina prepares for Saturday’s rematch, Paige is finally playing up to his Preseason ACC Player of the Year status.

The junior guard’s value to his team was not only evident in his stat line on Monday night – 22 points, eight assists, six rebounds, four steals, no turnovers in UNC’s 93-83 win over Syracuse – but it was also heard in the postgame interviews by both his head coach and teammates.

“I really don’t care about the questions,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said when asked about inquiries regarding Paige’s level of play earlier in the season. “I really don’t. I don’t care if it’s you or the Pope. And I’m not Catholic, so I’m not making the Pope mad. I never questioned him. I never questioned him, so I really don’t care.”

Junior forward Brice Johnson was less combative and more succinct: “He never left. Marcus has always been there.”

Leading up to the first Louisville matchup on Jan. 10, Paige was averaging 13.5 points on 36.8 percent shooting, a woeful mark for a guard frustrated with himself last season for shooting just 44.0 percent. His struggles were amplified in UNC’s losses to Butler, Iowa and Notre Dame in which he shot a combined 15-of-50.

Most noteworthy in those statistics, however, was not the 30 percent shooting, but rather the nearly 17 field goal attempts per loss. Paige is anything but a volume scorer.

And just as Brice Johnson emerged from his early-season slump and Justin Jackson began to mature into a college basketball player, not to mention the improved play of Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt off the bench, Paige was plagued with a rash of injuries.

First was a case of plantar fasciitis in his right foot that took hold the week after Christmas. Then there was a sprained right ankle late against Louisville, followed by a hip pointer against Virginia Tech.

While Paige said he’s still experiencing some pain in his foot when he has to sprint the full length of the court, he’s on the mend. He’s not worrying about his foot on the court anymore, which has allowed him to be increasingly aggressive.

“[I] superglued the right side of my body back together and now I’m good to go,” Paige said. “No, really, I’m starting to feel a little better. I still have aches and pains, but a lot of people in our league are feeling aches and pains right now.”

His improved health was on display against Syracuse, although the game-winner against the Cardinals seemed to jolt Paige from his shooting doldrums. Since then, Paige is averaging 16.8 points on 50 percent shooting (25-of-50) to go along with a 31:8 assist-turnover split.

Paige’s performance against the Orange may have only been topped by his effort at N.C. State 12 days earlier. He scored 23 points on 6-of-9 shooting (5-of-5 from 3) with nine assists, five rebounds, four steals and no turnovers.

“He really doesn’t have to go out there and average 17 [points] a night for us,” Johnson said. “He can go out there and just be a point guard and not try to be a legitimate scorer. He can score the ball, but at the end of the day, we do have other scorers.”

The combination of teammates elevating their play along with improved personal health has allowed Paige to assume a more confident, comfortable role.

“When other guys get going, I’m a point guard at heart, so I don’t feel the need to press,” Paige said. “If everybody can get going, then I can just take the open shots and try to create for my teammates.”

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