Chances are that if you’re a Tar Heel fan, you already love Marcus Paige. Perhaps a little too much. We’ll admit it – after all, the first step to recovery is often recognizing that you have a problem. As a lifelong Carolina Basketball fan, this is something that tends to happen every now and again. Every few years, there are those players that tend to have “it”. It’s hard to say what defines “it”. Most of the time there is one specific play or game that triggers the realization that you’re watching someone special. For Michael Jordan, it may have been “The Shot” against Georgetown for the 1982 National Championship. Jordan, a freshman from Wilmington, NC was called on to take the biggest shot for UNC Basketball in the last 25 years. He nailed it. But then again, we’re talking about MJ – of course he did. For Ty Lawson, it was the 2009 2ndRound Tournament game against LSU. Lawson, hampered by a sprained ankle, put the team on his back and carried us past a feisty LSU team to a National Championship. For Marcus Paige, it was February 26th, 2014.
The Tar Heels were in Raleigh taking on an extremely motivated NC State team. The Wolfpack wanted this game. They needed this game. TJ Warren, the ACC Player of the Year was going to do everything he could to ensure that NC State left PNC Arena with a win. Whenever it felt as if the game was slipping out of Carolina’s hands, Paige knocked down big shot after big shot. Warren scored 26 of his 36 points after halftime, but he was one-upped by Paige, who scored 29 of his 33 points after the break, including a layup with 0.9 seconds left in overtime. To those watching and ultimately invested in the outcome, it was a battle for the ages. It wasn’t the fact that UNC won this game, a game they admittedly should have won, but how they won. Promptly after Paige hit the driving layup to give the Heels the 1-point victory in overtime, chances are that if you weren’t telling anyone that would listen how much you loved Marcus, you were wearing a smile from ear to ear. It wasn’t the fact that he was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school in Iowa, or the fact that he was recently named an Academic All-American. Marcus Paige just had “it”, and that’s all we cared about.
Coming into to this season, it’s safe to say many didn’t expect this. How could you? Paige, a solid point guard during his freshman year, was the facilitator. His job was to spread the ball around to PJ Hairston, James McAdoo, and the rest of the Heels. However, things didn’t quite work out that way. Hairston was ruled ineligible midway through the season and with him to the NBA D-League went the Heels best scoring option. Immediately following December 20th, the date UNC officially announced they would not be seeking reinstatement for Hairston, UNC struggled to find their identity. For a young team that had spent the better half of the season attempting to survive until Hairston and Leslie McDonald returned, the news was devastating. The team struggled out of the gate in ACC play, compiling a 1-4 record to start their conference slate. The team not only lacked leadership on the offensive end of the floor, they were lacking something that every great team has – a soldier. The Heels needed someone who was willing to give everything they had for their squad. They needed someone who was not scared to drive into the heart of the defense– someone who was not only not afraid, but wanted the ball with the game on the line. Luckily for the Heels, Marcus Paige was present and reporting for duty. Paige didn’t blink. The 6’1 175 pound guard from Marion, Iowa immediately stepped up as the leader and go-to-scoring option for the overachieving Heels en route to a 12 game winning streak in ACC play. Paige averaged 17.1 points and 4.5 assists in route to earning First Team All-ACC. However, more importantly, the Sporting News named Paige to their Second-Team All-American team. This honor has earned Paige a spot among the UNC greats in the rafters of the Dean Dome when his playing days at UNC are done.
When Paige was asked about the honor he stated “Coach (Roy Williams) always says to make your dreams and goals high. He talked to me a little bit yesterday about not being complacent or being satisfied that I got my name up there, and try to shoot for more. Shoot for a national championship, try to get to a Final Four, maybe get your jersey to the front row — lead your team. Those are things that I’m going to aspire to now, but I’m still definitely happy that I’m going to be up there.” But of course Marcus Paige said that. Marcus Paige has “it”. That’s why we love him.