Marcus Paige on his prolonged shooting slump: ‘It’s mental’

(AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — North Carolina finished the year as the ACC regular season champs, closing the season with the first win in Cameron Indoor Stadium for anyone on the Tar Heel roster. They have a team with the bulk up front to be a matchup problem in the NCAA tournament, a roster that many believe may have the highest ceiling of any in college basketball and a real shot to finish as the dual-champions of one of the toughest conferences in the country.

So why does it feel like no one is talking about the UNC when it comes to reaching the Final Four and contending for a national title?

The long answer is complicated, some amalgam of mental toughness and a roster makeup that can’t effectively hide certain flaws. The short answer, however, is Marcus Paige and the brutal slump that he’s been mired in for the last eight weeks.

On January 4th, Paige popped off for 30 points as North Carolina steam-rolled Florida State in Tallahassee. In the four games following that outburst, he shot 5-for-35 from the field and 1-for-22 from three. In his last 16 games — effectively half of the season — Paige is averaging 9.1 points and shooting 32.2 percent from the floor and 26.3 percent from three. That includes Thursday afternoon’s eight-point performance in a commanding, 88-71 win over Pitt in the quarterfinal of the ACC tournament.

So what’s wrong with Marcus Paige, a kid that was good enough as a sophomore to earn some Preseason Player of the Year accolades last season?

“At the end of the day, it’s all between the ears,” Paige said after Thursday’s win. “Coming off my broken hand, the first couple weeks I was playing like an all-american. I was in my groove. Me and Brice had good chemistry. Then for whatever reason, I just went through a shooting slump and lost a lot of my confidence.”

“You can see guys like Denzel Valentine and Buddy Hield, how much confidence can do for you. Once you start playing confident you’re a different player and I just haven’t had that game where I’ve been able to get all the way back.”

And there-in lies the frustration for Paige. He’ll have nights where he makes a couple of threes — on Thursday, he went 2-for-5 from deep, hitting a pair of significant, momentum-changing triples — and follow that up with another 1-for-7 games.

“Listen, all my workouts, I’m shooting as well as I’ve shot all my life,” Paige said. “In practice I’m shooting well. I made a couple today. It’s mental. It’s something that I can fix.”

Part of the problem, Paige says, is that it gets into his head. Paige is a smart kid, but he has a tendency to overthink games and the way he plays in them. And that’s when his struggles build. Instead of heading into a game worrying about specific matchups or what plays may work against a given defense, he’s wondering whether this will be the day that he snaps out of his funk, hits six threes and scores 30 points.

“It builds on itself a little bit, but then you guys build it more than it needs to be built. So thanks for that,” Paige said. “At some point, you just have to relax and trust your instincts and play basketball. It’s just so hard to do when you’re not playing at the level you’re usually at. It’s something I struggle with.”

“All you gotta do is always believe,” said assistant coach Hubert Davis, who insists that the team is pushing Paige to continue shooting the ball. “You look at three things: 1. Is there something wrong with the form? 2. The quality of the shots. 3. Are you putting the work in? And Marcus is doing all of them.”

The most important thing for Paige at this point isn’t what he’s done for the last two months. It’s that the memory of a forgettable season will be erased if he plays in March like he did in December.

“If I click here down the stretch no one is going to care what I did in January.”

Kentucky’s Tionna Herron recovering from open-heart surgery

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LEXINGTON, Ky. — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy says freshman Tionna Herron is recovering from open-heart surgery to correct a structural abnormality.

The 6-foot-4 post player learned of her condition after arriving at school in June and received other opinions before surgery was recommended. Senior trainer Courtney Jones said in a release that Herron underwent surgery Aug. 24 at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and is recovering at home in DeSoto, Texas.

Elzy said Herron “is the definition of a warrior” and all are grateful to be on the other side of the player’s surgery. Herron is expected back on campus early next month and will continue rehabilitation until she’s cleared to return to normal activity.

“Her will and determination to eventually return to the court is inspiring, and it’s that `game-on’ attitude that is what makes her such a perfect fit in our program,” Elzy said in a release. “We are so thrilled for Tionna’s return to our locker room; it’s not the same without our full team together.”

Herron committed to Kentucky during last fall’s early signing period, rated as a four-star prospect and a top-70 player in last year’s class. Kentucky won last year’s Southeastern Conference Tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament’s first round.

Emoni Bates charged with 2 felonies

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SUPERIOR TOWNSHIP, Mich — Emoni Bates, a former basketball prodigy who transferred to Eastern Michigan from Memphis, was charged with two felonies after police found a gun in a car during a traffic stop.

The 18-year-old Bates failed to stop at an intersection Sunday night and a search turned up the weapon, said Derrick Jackson, a spokesman for the Washtenaw County sheriff’s office.

Defense attorney Steve Haney told The Associated Press that the vehicle and the gun didn’t belong to Bates.

“I hope people can reserve judgment and understand there’s a presumption of innocence,” Haney said. “This was not his vehicle. This was not his gun. … We’re still gathering facts, too.”

Bates was charged with carrying a concealed weapon and altering identification marks on a firearm. He was released after his lawyer entered a not guilty plea. Bates’ next court hearing is Oct. 6.

“This is his first brush with the law,” Haney said in court. “He poses no threat or risk to society.”

Less than a month ago, the 6-foot-9 Bates transferred to Eastern Michigan to play for his hometown Eagles. Bates averaged nearly 10 points a game last season as a freshman at Memphis, where he enrolled after reclassifying to skip a year of high school and join the class of 2021.

“We are aware of a situation involving one of our student athletes,” EMU spokesman Greg Steiner said. “We are working to gather more details and will have further comment when more information is available.”

Bates was the first sophomore to win the Gatorade national player of the year award in high school basketball in 2020, beating out Cade Cunningham and Evan Mobley. Detroit drafted Cunningham No. 1 overall last year, two spots before Cleveland took Mobley in the 2021 NBA draft.

Bates committed to playing for Tom Izzo at Michigan State two years ago, later de-committed and signed with Memphis. Bates played in 18 games for the Tigers, who finished 22-11 under Penny Hardaway. Bates missed much of the season with a back injury before appearing in Memphis’ two NCAA Tournament games.

In 2019, as a high school freshman, the slender and skilled guard led Ypsilanti Lincoln to a state title and was named Michigan’s Division 1 Player of the Year by The Associated Press. His sophomore season was cut short by the pandemic and he attended Ypsi Prep Academy as a junior, his final year of high school.

UConn to pay Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million over firing

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn announced Thursday it has agreed to pay former men’s basketball coach Kevin Ollie another $3.9 million to settle discrimination claims surrounding his 2018 firing.

The money is in addition to the more than $11.1 million in back salary Ollie has already been paid after an arbitrator ruled in January that he was improperly fired under the school’s agreement with its professor’s union.

“I am grateful that we were able to reach agreement,” Ollie said in a statement Thursday. “My time at UConn as a student-athlete and coach is something I will always cherish. I am pleased that this matter is now fully and finally resolved.”

Ollie, a former UConn point guard who guided the Huskies to a 127-79 record and the 2014 national championship in six seasons as head coach, was let go after two losing seasons. UConn also stopped paying him under his contract, citing numerous NCAA violations in terminating the deal.

In 2019, the NCAA placed UConn on probation for two years and Ollie was sanctioned individually for violations, which the NCAA found occurred between 2013 and 2018. Ollie’s attorneys, Jacques Parenteau and William Madsen, accused UConn of making false claims to the NCAA for the purpose of firing Ollie “with cause.”

The school had argued that Ollie’s transgressions were serious and that his individual contract superseded those union protections.

Ollie’s lawyers had argued that white coaches, including Hall-of-Famers Jim Calhoun and women’s coach Geno Auriemma, had also committed NCAA violations, without being fired, and indicated they were planning to file a federal civil rights lawsuit.

The school and Ollie said in a joint statement Thursday they were settling “to avoid further costly and protracted litigation.”

Both sides declined to comment further.

Ollie, who faced three years of restrictions from the NCAA on becoming a college basketball coach again, is currently coaching for Overtime Elite, a league that prepares top prospects who are not attending college for the pros.

Dream’s McDonald returning to Arizona to coach under Barnes

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TUCSON, Ariz. — Atlanta Dream guard Aari McDonald is returning to Arizona to work under coach Adia Barnes.

The school announced that McDonald will serve as director of recruiting operations while continuing to fulfill her WNBA commitments. She will oversee all recruiting logistics, assist with on-campus visits, manage recruit information and social media content at Arizona.

McDonald was one of the best players in Arizona history after transferring from Washington as a sophomore. She was an All-American and the Pac-12 player of the year in 2020-21, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game, which they lost to Stanford.

McDonald broke Barnes’ single-season scoring record and had the highest career scoring average in school history before being selected by the Dream with the third overall pick of the 2021 WNBA draft.

South Carolina, Staley cancel BYU games over racial incident

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COLUMBIA, S.C. – South Carolina and women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley have canceled a home-and-home series with BYU over a recent racial incident where a Cougars fan yelled slurs at a Duke volleyball player.

The Gamecocks were scheduled to start the season at home against BYU on Nov. 7, then play at the Utah campus during the 2023-24 season.

But Staley cited BYU’s home volleyball match last month as reason for calling off the series.

“As a head coach, my job is to do what’s best for my players and staff,” Staley said in a statement released by South Carolina on Friday. “The incident at BYU has led me to reevaluate our home-and-home, and I don’t feel that this is the right time for us to engage in this series.”

Duke sophomore Rachel Richardson, a Black member of the school’s volleyball team, said she heard racial slurs from the stands during the match.

BYU apologized for the incident and Richardson said the school’s volleyball players reached out to her in support.

South Carolina said it was searching for another home opponent to start the season.

Gamecocks athletic director Ray Tanner spoke with Staley about the series and supported the decision to call off the games.