We’re almost halfway through the college basketball season, and ACC Preseason Player of the Year and Preseason All-American Marcus Paige has yet to consistently look like that kind of a talent.
He’s averaging just 13.5 points and 3.6 assists while shooting 35.7 percent from three, numbers that are all down from his sophomore year. But on Saturday, none of that mattered, as Paige made arguably the most important play of the season for No. 18 North Carolina.
The Tar Heels had just erased a 13-point second half deficit against No. 5 Louisville at home, but after taking the lead when Paige found Brice Johnson for a lay-in with less than a minute left, Terry Rozier answered at the other end of the floor to put the Cardinals back up, 71-70.
Roy Williams called a time out at the other end, setting up the final possession: He was putting his star in a pick-and-roll. Paige came off the screen, realized the defense switched and that he had Chinanu Onuaku guarding him, put his head down and drove left, straight to the rim:
And a second angle, from the baseline:
A gorgeous, lefty scoop with 8.5 seconds left that turned into the game-winning bucket after Louisville missed a couple of chances at the other end.
Paige finished with just 10 points and three assists while shooting 4-for-12 from the floor and 2-for-7 from three. He also rolled an ankle that has been bothering him of late midway through the second half. But despite all of that, Paige returned to the game and had five points and a pair of critical assists as the Tar Heels closed the game on a 22-8 run.
Landing this win could not be more important for the Heels, who already lost to Notre Dame at home in ACC play and were just 12-4 on the season entering Saturday. It’s a signature win on their tournament resume and a step in the right direction in what will be a hotly contested ACC title race.
But more importantly, it’s a game that could ignite Paige’s season. North Carolina is built differently than they have been in the past. They’re most consistent source of offense this year has been through their front court, and quite often via second-chance points. But eventually, if UNC is going to live up to the hype they had prior to the season — being a top 10 teams and a legitimate ACC contender — they will need Paige to be aggressive and potent offensively. They need him to be aggressive attacking off the dribble and confident when shooting the ball.
Will this be the spark he needs?
As far as Louisville is concerned, it was great for them to see Chris Jones play — and shoot — well, as he finished with 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting. Terry Rozier added 25 as the Cards very nearly beat the Heels in Chapel Hill despite Montrezl Harrell giving them just nine points and five boards.
This loss will sting, and it certainly won’t help the Cardinals win the league, but if Louisville fans look at the big picture, this performance was a step in the right direction.