In a regional final for first time in his career, Marcus Paige arrives in Elite 8 with a determination that, in some ways, resembles 2009 national championship team. (Photo courtesy of Sports On Earth)
PHILADELPHIA -- Through the course of his four years in Chapel Hill, Marcus Paige has been something of an enigma, with prolonged shooting slumps to offset an explosiveness that has made him a legend in Carolina blue.
His performance Friday evening in the Tar Heels' convincing win over Indiana, where the senior scored 21 points and made six three-point field goals to bring North Carolina to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2012, displayed the side of Paige everyone has clamored for, and perhaps at the best possible moment for a UNC team that was viewed as a national championship contender before the season even started.
"The ball didn't go in the basket for a long stretch there, and it really bothered him," head coach Roy Williams revealed prior to meeting Notre Dame in Sunday's East Regional final. "Even when he was standing on the beach and couldn't throw it in the ocean, he was still making the other guys on the team better. He was still one of the best leaders I've ever been around."
And that assessment, Paige says, is attributed to his coach never once losing faith in his star player's abilities, even in a morass that may have felt eternal.
"A lot of that was early in my career as a freshman, kind of being thrown into the fire, having to play a lot of minutes early when I wasn't necessarily prepared to be a high-level ACC guard right away," the always eloquent Paige recounted, addressing how his playing time skyrocketed after his predecessor, Kendall Marshall, declared for the NBA Draft one year earlier than the program anticipated. "But even throughout this year, struggling, I don't think his confidence in me ever wavered, and I think that helped me get through a lot of my issues."
As Paige appears to have turned the corner once again, his take-charge play on the court may conjure up memories of Tyler Hansbrough, who was the face of the Tar Heels the last time UNC won a national championship, in 2009. But the similarities end there, as each has been their own man.
"Marcus has those great leadership qualities in that he can say it verbally and do it," said Williams. "Tyler Hansbrough just led by example. When he said something, everybody just shut up and listened, but he didn't do that very often. He just played."
When asked about a comparison to Hansbrough, who Mike Brey saw firsthand in that championship season while facing UNC in the Maui Invitational before coaching Tyler's younger brother, Ben, two years later, the coach played both sides of the fence.
"There are a lot of similarities there," the coach admitted. "Now, let's be honest: The Hansbroughs are a different breed of cat. I would love to have Ben back any day, and I know they'd love to have Tyler back at North Carolina. Marcus does it a little more diplomatically."
"He's what college basketball is all about," Brey said of Paige. "And you know what's great? When he wasn't playing well, he was never panicking, he was just playing and making sure his team won, and I thought he handled that with such grace."