UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- After North Carolina's win in the semifinals of the Hall of Fame Tip-off Tournament on Saturday, Marcus Paige was standing around the team's locker room when assistant coach C.B. McGrath offered the sophomore point guard, who had just played 38 minutes and scored a career-high 26 points, a seat.
"I'm good," said Paige.
"No, I want you to sit," said McGrath.
The Tar Heels will take every opportunity they can to rest the player who has very quickly established himself as their most indispensable, because they can't afford to do without him for long. On Sunday, Paige set a new career high with 32 points while playing 36 minutes against Louisville's pressure defense, leading No. 24 UNC (4-1) to a 93-84 win over the defending national champions and snapping the third-ranked Cardinals' school-record 21-game winning streak.
It was nearly as stunning a result as North Carolina's game last Sunday, when it blew a late eight-point lead and lost at home to Belmont.
"It's a completely different feeling than it was seven days ago," said UNC head coach Roy Williams.
"Last Sunday you could have heard crickets in here," junior forward Jackson Simmons said of the postgame atmosphere in the Tar Heels' locker room. "Today you couldn't hear anything."
Trailing by one with a chance to take the final shot against the Bruins, the Tar Heels disintegrated, settling for a rushed jumper without the ball ever touching Paige's hands.
That was rarely a problem this weekend. Paige made two tie-breaking threes in the second half to spur the Heels past Richmond on Saturday and on Sunday he very nearly matched the output of Louisville's All-America candidate guard Russ Smith, who finished with 36 points. Paige's three at the halftime buzzer sent the teams to the break tied at 44. He hit another with 10:54 to go that pushed a seven-point Carolina lead to double-digits for the first time, and his dunk with one minute left sealed the first true upset of a top-five team this season.
In all this weekend, Paige made 15-of-25 shots from the field, including 9-of-14 from 3, and 19-of-20 free throws for a scoring rampage that surprised even his teammates. "I didn't know he could do that," said Tar Heels sophomore center Joel James. "He told me stories of scoring 30 or 40 in high school but I didn't believe him."
Even Paige admitted he wasn't much of a scorer until his senior year of high school in his native Iowa. And while Williams repeatedly promised skeptical observers that Paige was a "big-time shooter" he rarely looked like it during the start of his freshman season. Once UNC went small starting in mid-February, Paige dialed in, shooting 43.5 percent from three over the team's final 13 games.
At the time, he was the fourth option in a four-guard offense. This year, he is the leading scorer for a Carolina team that is dealing with the absences of shooting guards P.J. Hairston, its leading scorer last season, and Leslie McDonald to an ongoing NCAA investigation. Neither Hairston nor McDonald made the trip to Connecticut but kept in touch with their teammates by group chatting with them throughout the weekend.
Paige has become Carolina's sole outside scoring threat -- he has made 17 of his team's 19 three-pointers this season and taken 32 of its 49 attempts. His 53 percent accuracy from deep suggests he'd be their best long-range threat even if Hairston, who shot 40 percent from deep last year, were back, but, said Paige with a grin after Sunday's win, "I know P.J. will tell you differently."
Whether or not Hairston and McDonald return -- there is no update on their in-limbo status with the NCAA -- it is clear that Paige will have to continue his stellar play if the Tar Heels are to make it to the NCAA tournament. The win over Louisville doesn't fully erase the bad taste of the loss to Belmont but it does cause a reassessment of just how good Carolina can be. More importantly, it was an enormous non-conference win and resume-builder for the Heels, who still have to play at No. 1 Michigan State next week and No. 4 Kentucky at home before beginning an 18-game gauntlet in the expanded ACC.
So, which team is North Carolina? The one that missed 26 free throws and gave away a lead to an Ohio Valley team, or the one that produced a decisive win against the defending champs?
"That's the question coach is going to pose to us," said Simmons. "I want to be the team we were today."
James was more certain. "We're the team that beat Louisville," he said flatly.
Though this was hardly a major cause for concern, the Cardinals have some questions of their own. They allowed Carolina to shoot 54.2 percent, the highest percentage they've allowed in two years. And while Smith and backcourtmate Chris Jones were spectacular -- combining for 56 points and 10 three-pointers -- the rest of the team had just seven field goals on 25 percent shooting. Their starting frontcourt of Wayne Blackshear, Montrezl Harrell and Stephan Van Treese were particularly ineffective, combining for more fouls (13) than rebounds (12 -- none by Blackshear).
Louisville's vaunted pressure was effective at times, but the Tar Heels only turned it over 14 times all game and never let Louisville get closer than seven in the last 10 minutes.
After one of those turnovers, Paige briefly left the game with 40 seconds remaining when he rolled his ankle. He was slow to get up but after walking on it for a moment walked back to the bench and told his understandably concerned teammates, "I'm OK," a proclamation he reiterated afterward. He re-entered the game with seven seconds to go and was deservedly on the court when the horn sounded.
At that point, a few Carolina coaches and players started to head for the locker room, only to be called back for the trophy ceremony. Perhaps they were a little out of practice. It was Carolina's first tournament win of any kind since winning the 2009 national championship and none of these Tar Heels had ever experienced such a moment in their college careers.
It turns out the party couldn't wait. Williams and his players had a celebratory mosh pit, usually reserved for the locker room, in front of the bench. Paige, who has played all but 22 minutes so far this season, didn't participate, having been pulled away for a TV interview. After Sunday, however, it's clearer than ever that if the Tar Heels are to have any other moments to celebrate this season, he will have to be right in the middle of it.