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Paige’s return has UNC in ‘comfort zone,’ looking like title favorite

With the return of its senior leader Marcus Paige, UNC instantly looks like a national championship contender

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The wait. That, in the end, was the hardest thing for Marcus Paige. Two hundred and fifty days since he’d last played in a game that counted: North Carolina’s loss to Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Twenty-nine days since the Tar Heels were voted No. 1 in the 2015–16 preseason Associated Press poll, in large part because Paige was still on the roster. Twenty-eight days since the senior guard fractured the third metacarpal in his right hand during practice, just his latest injury after suffering through foot ailments most of last season. Eighteen days since Paige’s teammates opened the season without him. Six games on the bench, including the visit to Northern Iowa that had been scheduled specifically as his homecoming tribute (he’s from nearby Marion, Iowa), and instead, resulted in an upset that dropped the Heels from No. 1 to No. 9. And then in a cruel twist, once he was finally cleared to play, for Tuesday night’s 89–81 win over No. 2 Maryland, the game’s ESPN broadcast slot wasn’t until 9:30 p.m. ET.

The wait was excruciating. It felt, Paige said, “like the longest day ever.”

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November’s Most Noticeably Absent Guard spent an early portion of Tuesday working on a paper due Wednesday for a globalization class. Paige’s topic: the decline of the nation-state and its impact on the global economy. He had to put the paper aside to make the early shootaround at the Dean E. Smith Center. Paige took his shots and started feeling the good kind of nervous. He finished up, looked at the clock and … damn: “It was still, like, five hours until the game.”

North Carolina’s JV team still had to play on the Dean Dome court. The JV Tar Heels lost to Davidson County Community College, and the handshake line didn’t take place until after 8 p.m. UNC students, at that point, were just trickling in to the building. At 8:18 p.m., there were a few scattered cheers as Paige emerged from a tunnel near the Tar Heels locker room, while Ed Sheeran's “Don't” played on the PA system. Paige grabbed a ball and took a few casual dribbles to the left elbow of the far basket. His mending right hand—his non-shooting hand—was taped, with padding affixed to its backside. He swished a shot from the elbow and then started testing his limits. He swished his first five three-point attempts, from the left wing. He only missed when he pushed it too far, taking a shot from out of bounds along the baseline, while standing on UNC's twitter handle.

At 9:33 p.m., when Paige was officially introduced as the final Tar Heel starter, 21 hours and 33 minutes into the 250th day since he'd last played a game, the roar was loud enough that the announcer could not get past: “6'2" senior from Mar—” before being drowned out.

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And the first thing we learned from the return of Marcus Paige came right after the tip-off: Coach Roy Williams was not using the lefty he tends to call “No. 5” or “little rascal” as a point guard. Sophomore Joel Berry II brought up the ball, and Berry and (much less so) junior Nate Britt shared that duty for the rest of the evening. Paige’s role was as a play-making shooting guard, one for whom they ran a play on the first possession of the game. Paige came off two screens on the right wing, received a pass, drove left down the lane, fumbled the ball—shaking off the rust—but recovered in time to dish to Kennedy Meeks for a 2–0 lead.

Thirty-two seconds later, Paige stood deep on the right wing, with 6'9" Maryland forward Jake Layman playing a step off of him. Paige casually sized up the distance, looked at Layman’s outstretched (but not bothersome) arm and drilled a three in his face. Paige's path back on defense took him near UNC's bench, towards which he turned and smiled. The lid was off, the nerves were gone and he felt no pain.

“Once that went in,” Paige said, “I was like, All right. You’re fine. Just play your game.”

Williams had wondered about Paige, how he’d act on Tuesday, given the wait and the stage. UNC wasn't just playing the nation's No. 2 team; it was also facing a point guard, Melo Trimble, who's among the few backcourt players anywhere that can match Paige's offensive output. Williams said he “had a feeling the little rascal would be pretty good.” But, the coach said, “You don't ever know because sometimes kids like Marcus, who are so conscientious and ​care, they put too much pressure on themselves.”

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If there was anyone affected by pressure early on, it was Trimble, who committed three turnovers in Maryland’s first 10 possessions. When the Terrapins entered the 11:49 media timeout trailing 17–11, their offensive play-by-play log was a wreck, with nine turnovers in their first 17 possessions. Trimble is typically a foul-drawing machine, and it took him until the 3:52 mark of the first half to make his first trip to the free-throw line.

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As for Paige, if Williams was looking for a sign that his senior star felt loose and confident, it came on a fast break with 8:08 left. Paige was running the floor ahead of ball-handler Brice Johnson, and the senior guard, who has never been considered a high-flyer, and is a highly infrequent dunker, called for an alley-oop. It was, Paige admitted, possibly the first time he'd called for an ‘oop’ pass since he was “on the playground, back in high school.”

Johnson overcame his surprise and obliged. What happened next was a subject of debate that included some grammatical self-correction from Paige, a double-major in journalism and history.

“If he would’ve threw it higher—if he would’ve thrown it higher, pardon [me]—I would have probably dunked it,” Paige said of Johnson’s pass. “But y’all don’t believe me, so that doesn’t matter.”

What we all saw was Paige rise to catch the ball—and yes, the pass was a tad low, but it wasn’t hip-low—then abort mission mid-air and dish the ball back to Johnson. He finished it off with a slam for a 30–19 lead, and was O.K. with the outcome. "Someone ended up dunking it," he said.

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The second thing we learned from the return of Marcus Paige was that he didn't acquire elite leaping abilities in the off-season. But the third thing we learned, when the game got hairy in the second half, with the resilient Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon leading the Terps back into multiple ties and even one short-lived lead, is that Paige did not lose his penchant for clutch shot-making. He delivered multiple Marcus Paige Moments after Maryland took its first lead, at 59–58, on a Trimble four-point play with 13:40 left. Paige immediately answered with a right-wing three, and added a short leaner on the subsequent possession to put UNC back up 63–59. He hit the 20-point mark with two free throws at 5:35 and finished with five assists and one turnover—a stat line Williams read off in his postgame press conference and later said, “I like my team. I like it a lot better when No. 5 is out there.”

That brings us to the last thing we learned from the return of Marcus Paige: That North Carolina, regardless of what the polls say, looks like the best team in the nation now that its leader is back. The Tar Heels’ offense opened up with Paige on the floor, and their previously mediocre jump-shooting became a bright spot, as they made 9-of-13 three-point attempts. Their defense was surprisingly stout, holding Maryland’s powerful scoring attack to its lowest output (1.04 points per possession) of the season. Paige claimed that his presence doesn’t make a “night and day difference,” arguing that all his return did was create a “comfort zone” for the team where everyone was shifted to their proper spot in the rotation. Paige was being too humble—in truth, North Carolina goes from a Sweet 16 team to the national-title favorite with him healthy—but the comfort-zone part was spot-on. The Heels, finally, seemed to be in all the right places.

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That is, except for one instance: When Paige walked into the Tar Heels’ team lounge for his postgame interviews, he found Berry—who finished with 14 points and five assists, a breakout performance of sorts—sitting in a corner chair, near the computers, that has long been reserved, unofficially, for Paige.

“Six games!” Paige said, feigning anger that he hadn’t been gone long enough to be supplanted from his chair. “Hey man, come on, now.”

Paige resigned himself to taking another spot. He took questions about the wait, his hand, its tape-job, the win, the alley-oop, the globalization paper he still had to finish by 10 a.m. Wednesday (it would keep him up past 3 a.m.), and finally, his favorite hip-hop artist, North Carolina-raised J. Cole, who'd been in the crowd and paid a visit to UNC’s locker room afterwards.

It only took a matter of seconds once Paige sat down for the flock of reporters around Berry to swarm around his elder backcourt mate. Paige had not been the first man in the room, but he immediately became the focal point. And the last thing he did, on his way out of the room at midnight, was recommend that a reporter familiarize himself with J. Cole.

“You gotta check that stuff out,” Paige said. “It's explicit lyrics, but it's got some good metaphors in there.”