The shaking wouldn’t stop. The tears had come to an end, but Marcus Paige kept shaking as he sat in a corner of North Carolina’s locker room, reliving the moment over and over.
The player who did more than anything to get the Tar Heels this far sat there and blamed himself for the end of their season, shivering like the notion seemed to chill him to his very core.
The idea was preposterous. Paige was North Carolina’s best player, one whose ability to score when the Tar Heels desperately needed him helped turn around a season that at one point looked very much headed in the wrong direction.
And yet he couldn’t shake the mistaken notion he’d let them all down with an utterly uncharacteristic turnover at the end of Sunday’s 85-83 loss to Iowa State. The same thought kept going through Paige’s mind.
“You’re thinking about the play that just cost you your season 20 seconds earlier,” Paige said. “It’s hard to describe.”
That play came with 31 seconds left, the score tied and the teams going back and forth, shot after shot. After a Naz Long 3-pointer made it 81-81, Paige walked the ball up the court and North Carolina started what James Michael McAdoo called a standard offensive set.
On the right wing, Paige curled around a McAdoo screen and cut into the lane. The Cyclones had been fighting through screens all night, but 6-foot-6 Melvin Ejim switched off McAdoo and onto Paige this time, so when Paige jumped as if to shoot, Ejim had a hand in his face. Already in the air, Paige looked to pass. McAdoo, expecting Paige to shoot, was getting into position for a rebound.
Paige, losing altitude, had nowhere to go with the ball.
His pass attempt grazed McAdoo’s fingertips. Ejim picked it up and threw a home-run pass to DeAndre Kane. North Carolina went from playing with the lead to playing from behind, a scenario that proved fatal when Kane slashed past J.P. Tokoto for the winning basket with 1.6 seconds to play.
The Tar Heels had been ahead by eight only a few minutes earlier, and Paige had an open look at a 3-point attempt that would have run the lead to 11. Even after the miss, Paige said the Tar Heels thought they had the game under control. But the Cyclones couldn’t miss, making seven of their final eight shots to close out the win.
“At the end of the day, we had a chance to win,” Paige said. “We had possession, we had the ball, we had the ball in my hands with James Michael setting a screen. That’s worked out for us all year.”
Paige took a couple quick breaths.
“I just didn’t make the play,” he said, his voice trembling. “My teammates trust me in that situation. I’ve come through for them a lot. If I had that play a thousand more times, I’d be confident of making that play a thousand times again. I’m sure my teammates would feel the same way.”
That belief was shared by Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, who in the process of game-planning against the Tar Heels’ final play that never happened, was only concerned with one player: Paige.
“We felt he would probably get the shot,” Hoiberg said.
Hoiberg knows. North Carolina didn’t lose because of Marcus Paige. It would never have been in this position without him.
“He’s the heart and soul of our team,” McAdoo said. “We’ll live with that.”
Paige can’t stop thinking about one play. If he remembers anything from this game, from this season, it should be those 12 words from McAdoo.