As reporters worked their way through the concrete hallways into the UNC locker room following the Tar Heels’ 87-78 win over No. 5 seed Arkansas, laughter accompanied the positive vibe resonating out of the small rectangular box of a room.
The junior guard was immediately surrounded and peppered with questions about the return of his #secondhalfPaige moniker, UNC’s small lineup late and the excitement of moving on in the NCAA Tournament.
The scene provided a stark contrast to the one that played out in San Antonio 363 days ago. In the moments following Iowa State guard DeAndre Kane’s game-winner over UNC in the third round, a distraught Paige demanded blame for a late turnover while trying to make sense of a second straight loss in the NCAA Tournament’s opening weekend.
That loss stuck with Paige in the worst kind of way. He’s mentioned it on numerous occasions dating back to last spring, when it served as fuel in his decision to not even consider making an early jump to the NBA after an All-American sophomore season.
Pairing that loss with UNC’s defeat to No. 1 seed Kansas in 2013 prevented Paige from having any Sweet 16 bragging rights during summer pickup games, and it soon became a focal point as the preseason started in August in the Bahamas.
When asked if winning on Saturday to advance to a Sweet 16, especially considering his role in carrying his team in the second half, had finally allowed him to release the Iowa State loss, Paige laughed and said, “Yes.”
“You don’t want to be a North Carolina basketball player and have the reputation of not being able to make through the first weekend of the tournament,” Paige said. “We had a great opportunity last year, but moving on from that point allows me to forget about the Iowa State game and just move forward and be a little bit happier. There’s some relief because I took that pretty hard.
“My demons have been exorcised.”
Paige, who battled plantar fasciitis for most of the ACC regular season, has gradually returned to full health and it’s been evident in his bounce and in his statistics. The Marion, Iowa native is averaging 17.9 points over his last seven games and is shooting 44 percent (22-of-50) from 3-point range during that stretch.
Against Arkansas, Paige had scored two points and committed two turnovers until connecting on a 3-pointer with 13:28 to play with UNC trailing 52-51. He scored 20 of his team’s final 36 points.
“I thought Marcus was sensational in the second half,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said. “He was 1-for-8 in the first half. He was 4-for-6 in the second half. He was 3-for-3 from the 3-point line. He did have three turnovers, which I didn't appreciate that, but he can't be perfect.”
Paige understood that UNC held a 39-36 lead at the half despite not playing its best ball in the first 20 minutes, and did what leaders do during halftime.
“I wanted to take it upon myself and challenge my teammates to make a stand,” Paige said. “This is the end of the year. If we come out and play great for 20 minutes, we control our own destiny, so that was the biggest thing for me. I just wanted to be more aggressive, but at the same time, slow down and make the right play.”
After Paige’s 3-ball gave UNC the lead back at 54-52, Arkansas retook the lead nearly three minutes later on Jabril Durham’s 3-pointer. Paige attacked the basket on UNC’s next two possessions, converting a layup and three free throw attempts to push the lead back to 63-59.
A pair of Paige 3-pointers over a three-possession stretch two minutes later built a 10-point lead that proved too large for the Razorbacks to overcome.
“We always know he’s going to show up in the second half and play big-time for us,” sophomore guard Nate Britt said. “He did a great job of that today.”
Paige Lifts Heels to Sweet 16
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