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HOUSTON — What happens after you hit the greatest shot anyone can remember in an NCAA tournament championship game, when one of the last acts of your college career is becoming a forever hero, and then you lose? What happens after you are sure you are going to give the place you love all it could ask for, at last, and all that’s in your hand is ash?
At this moment of unfathomable disbelief, Marcus Paige put his arms out, palms up, and then let them fall to his side. He walked off a raised floor and down a few steps and then up a ramp and into a locker room where he dropped his head. He emerged some long, anguished moments later, at about 10:47 p.m. CT, with his North Carolina jersey untucked and a towel slung around his neck. His shoulders moved up and down with each of his heaving breaths.
He had only begun to process how saving his team was not enough. Villanova took the national championship on Monday night, 77–74. It absorbed the final, desperate push from a senior guard on the other side who felt everything slipping away and decided to grab it back. It absorbed Paige catching a ball, rising up, double-clutching and launching a three-point shot that fell with 4.7 seconds left and was unlike any shot the 74,000-plus people in the building could imagine. The Wildcats did that by flipping the ball to Kris Jenkins and watching him hit the shot at the buzzer that caused the fireworks to pop and the streamers to fall, a shot that Paige’s eyes followed all the way, one he thought stayed in the air forever, one he prayed wouldn’t fall.
Not long ago, this Tar Heels team heard former players Sean May and Bobby Frasor talk about the seats at the table at Carolina. There were only five of them, they were told: 1957, 1982, 1993, 2005 and 2009, one for each of the NCAA tournament championships this program has won. Paige and his teammates wanted their own seat. They wanted to bring the program through a pall of uncertainty cast by an NCAA investigation into UNC's athletics department and to find their place on the other side.
“We had a chair pulled all the way up to that table,” Paige said, from the back of a quiet locker room. “And we just couldn’t quite get there. It’s something that will probably haunt me for the rest of my life.”
On Monday at NRG Stadium, Paige scored 21 points and dished out six assists and grabbed five rebounds and committed just one turnover across the final 34 minutes of the 4,536 he logged in four years at North Carolina. No player scored more points in this national championship game. And Paige was mostly irrelevant for much of the first half, failing to hit a basket in the first 12 minutes. His backcourt mate, sophomore Joel Berry II, was attacking and dissecting Villanova’s defense and had amassed 15 of his own points before the break. There was a perverse poetry at work, really, with the Tar Heels in the lead and Paige tentatively on course for the ending he envisioned, despite having very little to do with it.
But soon, swiftly and forebodingly, the ending washed out. North Carolina lost anything resembling offensive efficiency and Villanova thundered its way to a 10-point lead with a scant five and a half minutes left to play. By then Paige had decided he would participate in the national title game and try to make it his own, whether it all worked out or it all turned to rubble. “As the clock got lower and lower and our season is on the line, I can’t help it,” he said. “Something about that—I just want to start fighting. If you could fight somebody, I probably would do that, if it was within the rules. I just wanted every moment to go well for us.”
He antagonized a team—his own—that looked completely staggered and directionless. He took 13 second-half shots, almost double the attempts of the next-most prolific Tar Heel, and he scored 17 second-half points. Even more critically, as North Carolina closed the gap, Paige was responsible for the bucket or the assist on four of his team’s final five scores. He was pugnacious, almost feral. With 96 seconds left, Villanova redshirt freshman guard Mikal Bridges sent Paige crashing to the floor after swatting away a shot attempt; Paige hit a three-pointer from the corner after the ensuing inbounds play.
With 27 seconds left, Paige drove the lane, missed a layup and tumbled down once more. But whoever collected the rebound for Villanova landed on top of him. “So I just took it from them,” Paige said, “and kind of flicked it up there and it went in.”
For most of this final year, Paige was the least important he’s been to the program since his freshman season. His raw scoring and usage rate and Win Shares totals were the lowest since his first year on campus, when Paige wasn’t even ready for the starting role foisted upon him due to the unexpected early exit to the NBA of Kendall Marshall. But as he told reporters here, players are remembered and revered at a place like North Carolina because you hang championship banners in the arena, he said. And now, here he was Monday, hauling his program along. There was the matter of the title to win, naturally. But there was also the possibility of providing a burst of satisfaction to an athletic department nervously awaiting the fallout of an academic fraud scandal. And North Carolina only had a chance to achieve all that because, largely, Paige insisted upon it against Villanova on Monday night.
“I've coached a lot of guys, but I've never coached anybody any tougher than that kid,” UNC coach 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.”
Or, as senior forward Brice Johnson put it: “He played his a-- off, man.”
With 13.5 seconds left, Villanova junior wing Josh Hart hit two free throws for a 74–71 lead. When mapping out a play in the ensuing timeout, North Carolina expected the Wildcats to switch everything to prevent a game-tying three-pointer. So Williams dialed up a simple down screen from Johnson to free up Paige, figuring Paige would draw a big man who was at least less adept at challenging on the perimeter. It went precisely according to plan. Villanova senior center Daniel Ochefu switched out and dove at a pass from Berry to Paige, missing the ball that landed in Paige’s hands with about 8.4 seconds to play.
Once Ochefu fell, Paige knew he’d have his look. He did not anticipate Villanova’s Ryan Arcidiacono running at his right hip to contest the shot. So up Paige went, considering in mid-air whether he should throw the ball to the paint for an easier look. “But we needed a three,” Paige said. “There’s only 13 seconds, so it’s hard to draw the game up. I knew I needed to make it.”
It fell and it was catharsis. There were still 4.7 seconds left on the clock, but Paige knew if the game went to overtime, North Carolina was going to win. He considered it from the other perspective: What if you had a championship in your hands, and then the opposition scratched and scrambled back to take it from you? How could you recover? How could you go on?
“I was about 99% sure we were going to win the game,” Paige said. “We just had to get through that 4.7 seconds.”
Later, he’d think about all the things he could have done before that 4.7 seconds. A missed free throw here. A bad rotation there. Maybe the defense, as a unit, could have walled off a Villanova big man or challenged a Villanova shooter earlier on some otherwise insignificant possession. But in that 4.7 seconds, he watched Arcidiacono bring up the ball, and he watched the pass go to Jenkins, and he watched that ball sail through the dark backdrop of a football stadium.
And Paige wondered, even as his eyes tracked that ball, why he had been just waiting for that mental clock in his mind to wind to zeroes, and if he could have done just one more thing to save his team.
“When you’re a kid growing up, you don’t dream of missing the last second shot, or a team beating you at the buzzer,” he said. “You dream of having that moment. That confetti. Seeing your family over there crying tears of joy. Hugging guys you’ve had blood, sweat and tears with for four years. That’s what you dream of. We were close to that dream.
“That was supposed to be our moment. I’m sure it will take me a while to watch that game. It’s going to be impossible not to see it. That shot is going to go down in history as one of the biggest shots in NCAA tournament history. It’s a buzzer-beater in the final game. So I’m going to see it. And it’s going to hurt every time.”
For maybe a good 30 seconds, Paige said, he didn’t even know who was talking in the locker room. He couldn’t lift his head and stop staring at the floor. So this anonymous, unfamiliar voice went on about how proud he was, how you can’t be a great winner without great struggle and great loss, and how this cruelty could push the team along in whatever they did next in their lives. Finally, Paige looked up and recognized Michael Jordan, the greatest of them all, trying to help another generation of Tar Heels process the worst moment of their basketball lives.
All of them cried. Of course. Taking refuge in the shower area, just after the locker room doors opened late Monday, Johnson was nearly inconsolable. “Own up to this s---!” teammate Kennedy Meeks told him. “You played you’re a-- off! You got nothing to be mad about!” They emerged moments later, red-eyed and sniffling.
But by the end, Paige started to come around, if only just a little. He said he would be proud to see a Final Four banner raised in the Smith Center. He said there weren’t many college basketball players who have done better than what this team, and specifically his class, had managed to do. These were the two best teams in the country playing at NRG Stadium, he said, and his side just came up one possession short.
“This has been the happiest and most fun four years of my life, talking this year especially,” Paige said. “Hasn't been my best year as a player, but this has been the most fun I've had in my entire life with this team, all the way up until that last horn went off.”
He put a program on his back in the national championship game and damn near brought it a title. He hit the sort of shot people remember for all time. Absolutely no one will forget what Marcus Paige did Monday night.
The torture of it was that no one will forget what came next, either.