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Thursday, February 27, 2014

"We call that a go": Marcus Paige leads UNC men's basketball past N.C. State in overtime thriller

Posted by on Thu, Feb 27, 2014 at 6:00 AM

UNC guard Marcus Paige vies with N.C. State guard Tyler Lewis, PNC Arena, February 26, 2014
PNC ARENA/RALEIGH—You can probably spend your whole morning reading stories about UNC-Chapel Hill guard Marcus Paige, about Marcus Paige and North Carolina State forward T.J. Warren, about the [adjective] [noun] they [verb] in last night's seesawing, palm-sweating, 85-84 overtime victory by the Tar Heels over the Wolfpack. I hope you saw the game. You're not going to see a better one in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season.

Paige and Warren combined for 71 points, 35 of them in the game's final 10 minutes. Go read about that. Go read about the final play, in which Paige scrambled by a high screen and dashed to the hoop for a game-winning layup with less than a second remaining in overtime. Go read, if you must, about how Warren, great as he was with a game-high 36 points, missed two free throws in overtime that were the difference in the game, ultimately. Go read about Leslie McDonald's egregious foul that cost UNC a sure win in regulation. Read about how the level of intensity and quality of play started low and kept climbing, climbing until the two teams, led by their star players, were trading heavyweight punches of amazing force for the last 10 minutes of the game.

But stick around, or come back, and read about a few other things Marcus Paige did that weren't about making shots. They were just about winning.

One thing he did, he answered questions for something like 20 minutes after the game. People kept piling on to ask more questions, often the same questions he'd already been asked (and answered), and he just kept on answering them—gamely, brightly, amicably. You can listen to him talk for 15 minutes without getting bored. You feel almost embarrassed that you're still standing there. The kid is relentless, tireless. I even asked him if he was tired: "Yes!" he answered, emphatically. And then he kept answering them. He's an amazingly sharp, savvy, aware guy. Knows there's a Twitter hashtag about his now-legendary second-half eruptions. Talks all the talk about screens and sets and zones. Handles the attention his extraordinary play gets him like he's been expecting it for years. He's 20. His birthday is September 11.

Another thing he did: In overtime, UNC suddenly was no longer able to stop N.C. State from scoring. They had to score every time down the court in order to keep up with the Wolfpack. Paige had been making three-point shots from all over the place, and when he got the ball with about 50 seconds left and UNC trailing 83-79, N.C. State double-teamed him out on the perimeter. Somehow, he dribbled around this double-team, curled down on the baseline, and made a good pass to forward Brice Johnson in the paint. But Johnson missed the short shot Paige had set him up for. So Paige, who is listed at six-foot-one and might very well be an even six feet, pulled down the rebound in the lane and got fouled. He made both free throws. 83-81. He might be the Lionel Messi of college basketball.

North Carolina went to a full-court trap, and hounded (well, fouled) Warren into a turnover with 36.9 seconds left. The Tar Heels ran what Paige would later call the game's second-most important play: a low-block screen to free up James Michael McAdoo for an easy layup. It was just the second basket McAdoo made all night in 11 attempts. He played a game-high 43 of 50 minutes.

The play was executed perfectly, and it took only six seconds to run. The guy who set the screen for McAdoo down in the low block was Marcus Paige.

One more. In the first half, with about 5:30 remaining, UNC faced its largest deficit of the game, 11 points. N.C. State had the ball under their own basket, and the Wolfpack's Ralston Turner threw the usual long pass into the backcourt to set up a play. Only Paige anticipated the pass, playing possum on it, and made an acrobatic leap over the sideline for the ball, which was errantly heaved. He could have just let it go out of bounds. Instead, Paige not only saved it, he flung it, in one motion, over his head like a hook shot to Leslie McDonald, as he, Paige, fell out of bounds, and McDonald fed it to J.P. Tokoto (who had an excellent game, except for being one of the numerous Tar Heels who could not guard T.J. Warren). Tokoto dunked the ball suavely. By the time he did that, two or three seconds after Paige saved the ball, Paige had already regained his balance and was trailing the play from what was now the weak side of the lane, in case anything went wrong and he should have to fix it.

Paige's save was the no. 9 play on ESPN Sportscenter's Top Ten. Paige's game-winning layup was no. 2. (No. 1 is justly no. 1. Baseball season, sportsfans.)

J.P. Tokoto had to come out of the game late with a leg cramp. He played 33 minutes. Marcus Paige did not have a leg cramp. He played 41 minutes.

He was asked about the game's final play. Was it drawn up? Was he looking for the screen he got from Brice Johnson? He broke it down repeatedly because he was asked about the play multiple times. He did this generously, easily. He noted that N.C. State forward Jordan Vandenberg was "hedging a little bit" on the screen in case Paige decided to pull up for a jumper, which he had no intention of doing. He observed that Johnson set what he called a "chip screen," I think, rather than a "side screen"—frankly, it was hard to keep up with. So was Paige. He used the screen, won a footrace to the basket and made the clinching layup over... T.J. Warren.

Did the play have a name? Paige was asked. He said, "We call that a 'go.'"

Just a go, that's all. Seven seconds left. Go. The Eagles are playing this joint tomorrow night. Not Boston College; the Eagles. As in, already gone.

One last thing: I'm sorry there weren't two of me (or us) there, so that one of me/us could have written an equally glowing story about T.J. Warren, who made 36 points look so easy that he probably could have scored 50 had he not missed time with foul trouble. He and Paige were worth two game stories. Lately, the cults of personality surrounding celebrity college basketball coaches have grown quite tiresome, and it was a pleasure to sit and watch a game where the players were the story.


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