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PHILADELPHIA — Marcus Paige grew up in the heart of Big 12 and Big Ten country, playing high school ball at Linn-Mar High in Marion, Iowa, which sits 117 miles east of Iowa State and 41 miles north of the University of Iowa. He was a basketball junkie, watching any and every game he could find on TV, regardless of level or conference. But always, he says, he knew the ACC was tops.
And so when schools started courting the Parade All-America, he spurned offers from the local universities to lace up his sneakers for one of the most storied programs in college basketball history. The ACC is good, and there’s no doubt about that, Paige says—and it starts with North Carolina and Duke.
One of them had already left this NCAA tournament. Duke bowed out in the late game Thursday, falling to top-seeded Oregon in the West Regional semifinal. That left the Tar Heels, winners of the ACC regular season title and conference tournament, to stand tall for Tobacco Road.
But UNC wasn’t the only conference team left. Three others—Notre Dame, Syracuse and Virginia—advanced to regional finals before Carolina made it an even four with its 101–86 dismantling of Indiana on Friday. It’s the first time in its history that the conference has had four teams in the regional finals. The ACC is now guaranteed a team in the NCAA title game, which comes as no surprise to Paige. He grew up on this conference, tracking and mimicking former Wake Forest star Chris Paul, his favorite point guard. (He says he has a soft spot, too, for Vince Carter, but acknowledges “our games are nothing alike,” so there’s probably not much to learn there.)
Fittingly it was Paige, the best player on the best team in its conference and in the country—these guys are better than Kansas, don’t doubt it for a second—who performed, well, the best. He scored a team-high 21 points, hitting seven of his 12 field goal attempts, including 6 of 9 from long distance. He started 4 of 4 from three, draining all four treys before the first media timeout to put the Heels up 14–8.
“Marcus was making video game shots to start the game,” Indiana coach Tom Crean afterward. “I mean, seriously.”
Seriously. What else was there to do? UNC shot 51.6% from the field for the game and hit 11 out of 20 from beyond the arc. To heck with scoreboard watching, all one needed to do Friday was glance at the coaches to understand which team was dominating and which team needs to spend the off-season learning to slide its feet.
Williams looked sanguine, lounging on the bench with his arms folded casually, watching his guys stroke it from beyond the arc (7 of 8 from three the first half). If someone had handed him a fruity drink with a tiny umbrella in it, he probably would have sipped it leisurely and flashed a thumbs up.
Crean, by comparison, paced manically, throwing his hands up in exasperation and hiking up his oversized pants as he implored his team to Please close out on the perimeter. It’s possible that Crean, who turned 50 on Friday, burned more calories during his sideline activity than he did on his pregame jog around downtown Philadelphia.
“We never got him under control with what we wanted to do on the wings,” Crean said of Paige. “He's a tremendous wing shooter, and what he did was got hot ... When you’ve got that, with the level of what they’ve got inside, it’s hard to deal with.”
Down 52–41 at halftime, Indiana never cut it closer than 10 points in the second period. Each time the Hoosiers threatened, and their rollicking fan base—featuring Crean’s famous brothers-in-law, Jim and John Harbaugh—got loud, the Heels had an answer inside (combined 35 points and 19 rebounds from Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson) or out (14 points, three assists and two steals from Joel Berry II).
“When we’re hitting shots it’s tough,” Paige said. “Our inside game, that’s what we use to try to impose our will so when they have to worry about us knocking down shots, too, it makes it a lot better.
“We always preach balance, but we haven’t had great balance this year.”
Paige dismissed a question about if he felt a responsibility to shoot well early Friday, or if he just wanted to shoot well given the year he’s had. No one will remember that at one point during conference play he was only hitting 31% from three, he says, but they’ll remember a Final Four trip. And surely, a visit to Houston would help erase bad memories from a sometimes frustrating season, one in which Paige missed six games because of a broken right hand. The worst day came on Nov. 21, when he watched helplessly from the sideline as UNC lost 71–67 to Northern Iowa. He fought so hard to get back to the tournament, just for a chance to keep going. So yeah, shooting well in the regionals is nice, but it’s not the lasting memory he wants.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment, the chance to get to the Final Four, for a long time,” Paige said. “That’s more of what my focus has been.”
He’s excited about what UNC is on the brink of, not what he gets to list on his résumé. He does not care about the individual accolades, he said, like the fact that on Friday he passed Michael Jordan in the UNC record books for career points, upping his total to 1,797, 12th most in Heels’ history. Jordan had 1,788, though Paige admitted with some reluctance that the UNC great “did it in just three years.” When he heard his point guard add this asterisk to a stunning accomplishment, Williams told Paige, “Shut up! Your name’s going to be ahead of Michael Jordan’s in something. Just take that and appreciate it.”
Williams saw Paige play for the first time in summer 2010, at an AAU tournament in Orlando on an upstairs court at the Disney World Milk House. Williams would have found Paige eventually, of course, but that day he was supposed to be elsewhere, watching another prospect. When that game got postponed, Williams decided to check in on a kid recommended by former player J.P. Tokoto—a skinny guard by the name of Marcus Paige. “I thought he was sensational,” recalled Williams, who loved the way Paige could distribute, score and lead.
When he recruits prospects, Williams doesn’t focus on the pageantry and tradition of ACC basketball. He’s there to sell North Carolina, though he usually throws in some nice stuff about the ACC as an afterthought. For Paige, it doesn’t matter. He already knows he plays in the best conference in the country. Now all that’s left to prove is that he also leads the best team.