HOUSTON – When Marcus Paige knocked down his improbable circus shot, a double-clutch hanging 3-pointer from right of the key, with 4.7 seconds to play, the senior guard was convinced North Carolina was going to win the national championship in overtime.
All the Tar Heels had to do was survive those final 4.7 seconds.
“You’re so close to that moment,” Paige said in the postgame locker room. “You’re 4.7 seconds away from winning the game, because I told the team we were going to win if we got to overtime. All we had to do was get to overtime and the game was ours.”
Instead, Villanova’s Kris Jenkins inbounded the ball, trailed Ryan Arcidiacono as he pushed the ball up the court and got the ball back for an open 3-pointer off the right wing that swished through the net as the final horn sounded.
It was a defensive breakdown the Tar Heels wished they had back. Paige suggested maybe they got caught up watching the ball, hoping the clock would run out instead of defending until the final horn.
“The moment that you’ve been clawing for, fighting every day for, hoping for, dreaming about, just goes away that fast,” Paige said. “It’s hard to describe.”
That UNC was in that position – a tie game with 4.7 seconds to play – was hard to fathom given how the second half played out. Villanova took away the Tar Heels’ post advantage with a relentless defensive effort, outscoring them 32-26 in points in the paint.
UNC finished the season 0-6 in games in which it failed to outscore its opponent in the paint.
“They were fronting us,” senior forward Brice Johnson said, “and then we tried to go high-low and it was hard because they were putting a lot of pressure on our guards and they weren’t able to get it in there. That was the biggest thing.”
The Tar Heels were able to counter that approach by connecting on 7-of-9 3-pointers to take a 39-34 lead into halftime. The inability to score consistently down low, however, caught up with UNC early in the second half as Villanova used a 19-5 run to turn a seven-point deficit into a seven-point lead.
“We had some times where we missed them down low,” sophomore wing Justin Jackson said. “But they did a really good job defensively just trying to interrupt everything that we were trying to do.”
UNC trailed 60-57 with 7:02 to play when Kennedy Meeks established low post position against 6-foot-3 Wildcat guard Jalen Brunson. Paige settled for a 3-pointer instead which missed its mark, and Arcidiacono flipped the script on the other end with a trey of his own. That bucket sparked a 7-0 run that pushed Villanova’s lead to 67-57 with 5:29 to play, which is when the Tar Heels started their final charge.
After a pair of free throws and Johnson's offensive rebound and putback dunk, Paige drove the right side of the lane and kicked out to Joel Berry for an open three to pull UNC within three points.
That’s when Paige took over, scoring eight of his game-high 21 points in the final 93 seconds. He missed a driving layup with 26 seconds left, only to somehow corral the ball and score on the putback with 22 seconds left to cut UNC’s deficit to one. After Josh Hart knocked down a pair of free throws to push the lead back to three with 13 seconds left, Paige made his acrobatic 3-pointer to tie the game with 4.7 seconds on the clock.
“I've coached a lot of guys, but I've never coached anybody any tougher than that kid,” Roy Williams said. “I've never coached anybody that tried to will things to happen even when he wasn't playing as well as he could play.”
Everything was in place for a historic UNC victory, one that would long be talked about along with the 1957 and 1982 championship games, but it wasn’t to be had.
“It was the two best teams in the country,” Paige said. “We were anticipating a battle, we got a battle and they hit a shot that will go down in history.”
The locker room that had been so full of life this season was silent after the game, save for reporters asking difficult questions and emotional players trying their best to offer responses.
“It hurts, especially whenever you have a team like this,” Jackson said. “We were literally like family. Nothing will ever take that away, but that makes it hurt even more.”
Johnson, who got his first taste of a championship at Cameron Indoor Stadium four weeks ago and had been intently focused on adding a third title to his trophy case, was somber as he sat in a folding chair in the middle of the locker room, wanting to be somewhere else rather than answering reporters’ questions.
And then there was Paige, holding court as only he can with the media, dissecting his late 3-pointer, the defensive breakdown in that final 4.7 seconds and the reality of a completed career lacking the storybook ending that it deserved.
“At some point tonight, I’m going to have to take this jersey off and I’ll never get to be a Tar Heel again in the moment,” Paige said. “But this group had so much fun. From locker rooms to bus trips to hotels, we really enjoyed coming to practice every day and being ourselves, being that loose group, having fun and just being who we were. And that’s done. That’s over. We’ll never get that back.”