Now healthy, UNC's Paige eyes strong finish to bumpy season
The junior was a preseason all-American before having a slow start followed by a troublesome lingering foot injury. But he looks his healthiest in weeks and is playing some of his best ball entering the NCAA Tournament.
''Yes, I'd like to win a national championship,'' Paige said in an interview with The Associated Press. ''Yes, I'd like everything to be a lot smoother. Yes, I'd like to be shooting 60 percent from the floor right now like (Duke's) Jahlil Okafor and be a national player of the year.
''But at the same time, this is special opportunity I'm still fully engulfed in.''
Seeded fourth in the West Region, the Tar Heels (24-11) open play Thursday against Harvard in Jacksonville, Florida. And Paige is looking to continue his stepped-up play from the regular-season finale against Duke and the Atlantic Coast Conference Tournament.
After averaging 13.2 points, 4.4 assists and 40-percent shooting through the first 30 games, Paige is averaging 18.2 points and 5.8 assists on 49-percent shooting in the last five.
He first matched his season high of 23 points and five 3-pointers against the Blue Devils. Then, after upsets of Louisville and Virginia, Paige scored 22 of his 24 points after halftime with five more 3s in Saturday's loss to Notre Dame in the ACC final.
''When he's aggressive, it makes everyone else on their team better,'' Fighting Irish star guard Jerian Grant said. ''When he gets going like that, they're going to be a tough team to beat. We know in the big moment, he wants the ball. When you have a player like that, it scares the other team.''
It's easy to overlook now, but the 6-foot-1 point guard from Marion, Iowa, was considered among the nation's elite in October.
He joined Duke's Okafor and Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky - front-runners for national player of the year from No. 1-seeded teams - on the five-man Associated Press preseason all-America team. And it was Paige, not Okafor, named ACC player of the year.
''There was definitely more pressure,'' Paige said. ''I'd be a fool to say I didn't hear things or wasn't aware of the expectations that were put on me. Obviously I had high expectations for myself, too.''
But chatter quieted when he didn't shoot well early. Then came a painful case of plantar fasciitis in his right foot by late December, limiting him in numerous practices and often hindering his ability to push off, cut and elevate.
He didn't look like the same guy who averaged 17.5 points last year, yet frequently shrugged off questions about the injury's impact. And while Brice Johnson gradually developed into an all-ACC option inside, the Tar Heels stumbled in several winnable games without Paige's clutch second-half performances from a year earlier.
Coach Roy Williams called Paige ''the kind of kid that wants to do more and do better,'' so it's no surprise Paige needed to talk with Williams on ''not beating myself up over trying to be perfect'' even before the foot problem began.
His mother noticed it, too.
''I feel there was so much preseason pressure - and he would never admit because he's a very humble human being - that I think it took its toll on him,'' said Sherryl Paige, a former high school basketball coach. ''Then, when you don't start performing, you start questioning yourself and you over-try. And things just were not smooth for him.''
Weeks of limited practice and treatments eventually helped Paige's foot improve. By the end of the regular season, he said he was pain-free - evidenced by how well he performed while playing 146 of 160 minutes in four ACC Tournament games in as many days.
Paige said he doesn't regret how the season unfolded because there are plenty of games left and he feels ''pretty lucky to get to do what we do.''
''I've learned to just take it as it is and just play - be Marcus Paige,'' he said. ''You can't be anything more or less. You've just got to be who you are, and that's a guy that's committed to doing whatever he can to help the team win.''
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