February 27, 2014
It was an AAU tournament in Indianapolis, and Johnson's team was about to face Paige's team. This was before Johnson had committed to Carolina, so he wasn't fully up to date on the Tar Heel commitment list.
"Hey," one of Johnson's teammates told him during warmups, "that other team has a player who is going to North Carolina."
Johnson craned his neck at the other end of the court, surveying the opposition. He gave each of them a once-over, then turned back to his teammate. "Really?" he said, a little incredulously. "Which one?"
After watching a little bit more of warmups, Johnson declared he knew which player was Chapel Hill bound: one of Paige's teammates.
Then the game started, Paige scored "about 40 points," according to Johnson, and Johnson knew exactly which player was going to Carolina.
"Real talk," James says. "I was like, 'This is one skinny little wimpy dude.'"
Then, in the first day of summer pickup after the freshmen arrived on campus, with NBA players in the game and several of the freshmen on the court, the pickup battle went to game point.
"That's when I knew Marcus was for real," James says. And why is that?
"He dunked on Jackson Simmons on the very first day of pickup on game point," James said. "And I was like, 'Oh man, that little dude's got bounce.'"
Simmons, showing veteran moxie, was already out of the locker room and on the bus by the time this story was being told. Unfortunately for him, several teammates verified it.
Paige was still around, probably preparing to dive into a big plate full of PNC Arena brownies. The Iowa native was named second-team Academic All-America in his spare time last week (when he wasn't helping Carolina to four wins in eight days), so he of course recalled the play with perfect detail.
"Kendall (Marshall) was guarding me," he said. These are things that happen in the summer in the Smith Center--you see pickup games involving Kendall Marshall guarding Marcus Paige. "He tried to force me baseline, because that's the new thing in the NBA, to force everything baseline. So I got it backdoor a little bit, and Jackson was under the rim, and my young high school legs were able to get me to the rim.
"Honestly, it took me a little while to believe it had happened."
Sort of like every Carolina fan spent late Wednesday night wondering if that had really just happened, if Paige had really just poured in 35 points, including 10 of Carolina's 14 points in overtime and 17 of Carolina's last 21 points overall, doing it all while being locked in one of the greatest one-on-one battles in recent Tar Heel history against NC State's T.J. Warren.
He also found time to hit the game-winner, a length of the court dash that capped a comeback from six points down with 90 seconds left in overtime and immediately goes right beside Ed Cota's baseline floater in 1997 and Dudley Bradley's steal and dunk in 1979 among Wolfpack soul-crushers in Raleigh. It must have been especially infuriating for the Wolfpack fan who had to deal with the loss without his can of dip, which he had hurled at the Tar Heels during pregame warmups. It rolled across the court and came to rest near Nate Britt.
"Yes," Britt confirmed after the game, "that's the first time that has ever happened to me."
Here's the thing: Paige is an incredibly smart player. With Carolina inbounding the ball with 1.5 seconds left in a tie game in regulation, it was Paige who went directly to official Les Jones. "We're going to call timeout on the catch," he told Jones. The Tar Heel play was to throw the ball to midcourt and call timeout to set up a potential winning play. Paige told the official the plan because, who knows, an extra tenth of a second of anticipation on the whistle might be the difference between winning and losing.
It was Paige who, with 7.7 seconds left, heard in his head the instructions of Roy Williams. Imagine this--Williams had no timeouts left. But it didn't matter, because Paige knew what his head coach would say: "Coach always says, 'If there are more than seven seconds left, attack and make something happen," Paige said. There was no time to think about this. Warren made a go-ahead free throw, Paige took the inbounds pass, and he had to know what to do right away. No time to consider the options. Just play.
Then watch the tape after his game-winner. It was Paige, among all five Tar Heels on the court, who located the one State player who could win the game--T.J. Warren. Paige is knocked to the deck, gets off the floor, runs back into the play, signals the defense, and then gets a hand in Warren's face, all in less than 0.9 seconds.
We do not even have time to talk about his absurd first half steal, when he tipped the ball back toLeslie McDonald while flying out of bounds at midcourt. There is no time for that. Sometime later, maybe we can mention it.
So he is an incredibly smart player. But haven't we reached the point where just calling him a smart player is doing him a disservice? Marcus Paige is, as Roy Williams would say, really freaking good.
"There are times like today when he's hot," said James Michael McAdoo, who quietly made an important play on the game-winner when he sealed off Kyle Washington from getting to the rim defensively. "There's that moment of silence when he lets the ball go and it's in the air. Then it tickles the twine, and you're just like, 'Go, Marcus.'"
I remember the first time I saw Marcus Paige, in the summer of 2012. It was in the hallway at the Smith Center and he walked by wearing a backpack and sweats and I thought maybe he was a student intern in the athletic communications office. I stopped by the basketball office and chatted with Joe Holladay about the new freshmen.
"Have you seen Marcus?" the former Tar Heel assistant coach said.
I gave him a concerned look, not willing to say it but wondering if he was really sure that this kid with the backpack could play at the ACC level.
"I know," Holladay said with a grin. "He's going to be an All-American before he leaves here."
The coaching staff, it seems, knew it all along. But there was a time during his freshman season when Paige thought that perhaps he was out of his depth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. He started his first college season slowly, with the turnovers and missed shots accumulating.
"I owe a lot—a lot—to Coach Williams," Paige said after Wednesday's game. "When everyone was doubting me, no one had more confidence in me than him. He stuck with me through everything and has always instilled confidence in me, and that's why I play confidently on the court.
"When I was struggling, I would go in and talk to him a lot. He told me other guys have struggled. He told me Ty (Lawson) struggled, and Kendall struggled, and that there was no one he wanted running his team other than me. And that's what helped me get through it."
Five minutes after Marcus Paige pierced NC State's heart, with his team gathered around him, Roy Williams addressed his 10-in-a-row Tar Heels. "Leslie, who is your favorite North Carolina player?" he asked Leslie McDonald, whose foul at the end of regulation looked disastrous at the time.
"Marcus Paige," McDonald replied of the player whose incredible performance had saved the game.
Ten minutes after Marcus Paige pierced NC State's heart, the hero was called back onto the PNC Arena floor for an ACC Network interview. Virtually the only people remaining were Tar Heel fans, except for one very lonely Wolfpack fan seated near the midcourt interview location. "Hey Marcus Paige," he shouted into a quiet arena, "you are..." and then he described what can often be found in some of the grassy areas around NC State's campus.
Paige looked directly at the angry fan, raised one eyebrow, and gave him a big smile. Then he started his postgame interview.
"I had some kind words for them on the way out, but they didn't have any kind words for me," Paige said later. "It's such a great feeling to go back out there and they're still sitting there angry. You don't have to say anything. You just know, 'Hey, you just lost by one point. Have a good night.'"
By now, it was 30 minutes after Marcus Paige pierced NC State's heart. Paige was still in full Carolina blue uniform, shoes still tied, jersey still on. His right leg was bouncing up and down unconsciously, a sign of how much adrenaline was still pumping. He was more or less alone for the first time in the last half-hour. This was, Paige said, the first time he had hit a shot like that.
"Oh my goodness," he said, "this is a wonderful feeling."
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.