College Sports

One year later, the legacy of Marcus Paige’s final shot lives on

UNC’s Marcus Paige made one of the great shots in NCAA tournament history in the national championship game against Villanova last year -- and then Kris Jenkins upstaged it 4.7 seconds later.
UNC’s Marcus Paige made one of the great shots in NCAA tournament history in the national championship game against Villanova last year -- and then Kris Jenkins upstaged it 4.7 seconds later. cliddy@newsobserver.com

Marcus Paige wanted to see the television introductions and listen to Jim Nantz and experience what it looked and sounded like, to the millions who watched it live, when he made the greatest shot that meant everything, and then nothing. And so that’s why he watched what he’d already lived.

Some of his former North Carolina teammates still haven’t watched the whole thing. And Roy Williams, the UNC coach, has said he’ll never re-watch the 77-74 defeat against Villanova in the national championship game last April. Paige, meanwhile, wanted to see it from a new perspective.

Four months passed before he found the will, or the time. Maybe both. He was back in his hometown of Marion, Iowa, last August, after the NBA Summer League ended. Home alone, he walked downstairs to the basement, where his father keeps the DVDs of his games organized by year.

Paige reached for the disc on top. Ellis Paige, his father, had labeled it clearly: “Carolina-Villanova.”

It disappeared inside the DVD player. The start of the television broadcast began. Paige took his seat, finally ready to relive what just might have been the best national championship game ever played, the one in which he made the greatest shot that might ever be forgotten.

4.7 seconds left

It wasn’t the first time Paige had seen the ending. For months the highlights had been inescapable, either on TV or on social media. Plenty of times before, Paige had seen the 3-pointer that Kris Jenkins made at the buzzer, the one that gave Villanova the national championship.

And plenty of times before, Paige had seen himself 4.7 seconds earlier: his legs going back behind him, his arms bringing the ball up, and then down again, and then up – an improvised, on-the-fly sequence that worked, somehow.

Now comes the one-year anniversary, and the Tar Heels are back in the Final Four. What happened a year ago already would have come with its share of anniversary tributes and look-back retrospectives, attempts to find meaning and perspective.

Paige already would have answered questions about it, if willing, and relived it again, in some ways. With UNC in the Final Four for the second consecutive year, perhaps Paige’s shot lives on more than it would have otherwise.

The Tar Heels have carried its memory with them into the Arizona desert, to the Final Four, and that memory became part of their season-long quest for redemption. The ending to last season has fueled Paige’s former teammates since their last night together in Houston.

They all remember the greatest shot they ever saw, one that gave the Tar Heels new life. And they all remember what came next: Jenkins’ game-winner that extinguished that life, and ended UNC’s season 4.7 seconds after Paige had inspired so much belief and hope.

The Tar Heels believe something was taken from them a season ago. That something was “snatched away,” as Williams has put it on several occasions. They believe the magic of Paige’s shot, perhaps the greatest in school history when he made it, should have lasted longer than 4.7 seconds.

It was a magical shot, after all, a how-did-that-happen moment, with Paige rising amid the defensive pressure, his legs churning beneath him, as if treading water, the ball in his hands, back down toward his shoulder and then back up again, and then out, finally, on its way before he landed. And then it went in.

“When I did it,” Paige said recently during a phone interview, “I didn’t feel like I moved around that much, honestly. I just felt like I jumped in the air and hesitated a little bit and shot it. But like now, I’ve seen slow-mo replay pictures.

“It’s kind of weird, because I don’t really remember flailing around as much as I did.”

The physics of it were one thing. Then there was the setting.

Paige’s off-balance, double-clutching 3-pointer tied the national championship game at 74 with 4.7 seconds remaining. It sent souvenir seat cushions flying inside NRG Stadium in Houston. It sent however many tens of thousands of people running through their living rooms.

And imagine, for a moment, what the legacy of that shot would be had it not come 4.7 seconds before the 3-pointer Jenkins made at the buzzer. Paige’s shot created a storm of seat cushions. Jenkins’ a downpour of confetti.

Two of the greatest shots in NCAA tournament history, separated by 4.7 seconds and whatever the emotional distance is between losing and winning a national championship as time expires.

Legacy of Paige’s shot

What is the legacy of it? How will it be remembered? How will the memory of that moment change in five years, or 10 or 20? Jenkins’ shot will live on the way game-winners do.

Thirty-four years later, we’re still talking about Lorenzo Charles and the dunk off an air-ball that gave N.C. State a national championship victory against Houston. Twenty-five years later, we’re still talking about Christian Laettner sending Duke to the Final Four with his turnaround against Kentucky.

Decades from now, Jenkins’ shot will remain in the conversation like those moments, and others. But what about Paige’s? Michael Jordan, who made what has long been regarded as the greatest shot in UNC basketball history – the one to win the 1982 national championship – was there last year.

When Paige made his shot, the cameras showed Jordan, jumping and jubilant, near the Tar Heels’ bench. For a moment he wasn’t one of the most powerful, richest men in sports. He was a fan caught up in the drama, like millions of others.

Jordan addressed the Tar Heels afterward. And then Williams spoke with Jordan.

“I told Michael in the locker room after he spoke to the team, I said if we had gotten the game to overtime, and won the sucker, your shot would have been the second-most famous in Carolina basketball history,” Williams said.

But the game didn’t go into overtime. And the Tar Heels didn’t win.

At UNC, at least, the moment will endure. Before every UNC home game this season, Paige’s shot flashed up on the video board during the montage of highlights that plays over the introductions. Along with it, there was the audio from UNC’s radio broadcast.

When Paige’s shot went in, Eric Montross, the Tar Heels’ radio analyst, released a guttural scream. It fit the moment better than any words could. In the year since, words are still sometimes difficult to come by. Asked what the legacy of Paige’s shot should be, Nate Britt, UNC’s senior guard, paused for a while.

“Hooo,” he said, exhaling. “That’s a tough question. Coach talked about it last year, about how Marcus’ shot, we overlook because of the outcome of that game.”

For Britt perspective might come with more difficulty than it does for others. One moment he watched one of his closest teammates make history. The next he watched Jenkins do what he did. Jenkins and Britt, from the same area outside of Washington, D.C., consider each other brothers.

Jenkins moved in with Britt’s family during their high school years. Britt has seen Jenkins’ shot often during the past year, perhaps more than any one of his teammates. When Britt goes home, there are pictures of Jenkins’ shot around the house. Britt has seen Paige’s shot plenty, too, and still doesn’t have the words.

“I don’t know how I could describe it,” he said. “I don’t think I could describe it without showing it to someone. I mean, being there and seeing it first-hand, experiencing it – I don’t think I even cheered at the moment he made the shot, because I was so in awe of the shot.”

The shot

Those Paige left behind at UNC still sound like they can’t really believe that it went in. They speak about it in tones of reverence and sadness. Reverence because of what it meant in that moment, and the degree of difficulty. Sadness because of what it could have meant, had UNC prevailed in overtime.

It was the last shot Paige ever attempted in college. One that personified his reputation for making dramatic, late shots in close games. Joel Berry, the Tar Heels’ junior point guard, can’t bring himself to intentionally watch Paige’s shot. He’s seen it replayed, but he hasn’t sought it out.

“To me, it’s the best shot in my eyes,” Berry said. “Just because I was sitting there watching it, and I was able to be a part of it. So I know Michael Jordan’s shot was pretty good.

“But to me his shot was more – it’s something that I can relate to because I was right there watching it, and seeing him in that awkward lunge position, shooting the ball. I mean, when do you ever practice shooting a shot like that?”

The answer is never. Players never practice shooting a shot like that.

Theo Pinson, the junior forward, said recently that, at times, he and his teammates might try to attempt trick shots – weird releases or strange shooting motions. After practices, Pinson said, “we’re playing around all the time.”

But that? Pinson had never seen Paige try that. And nobody has tried to imitate it since.

“Only one guy can do it now,” Pinson said. “Marcus.”

That Paige was even able to release it at all, giving it a chance, was something of a victory in itself. Here’s how it happened: Berry brought the ball down the court. Brice Johnson set a screen for Paige, who ran past the 3-point line on the right wing. Paige faked retreating, then freed himself, briefly.

Berry passed. Villanova’s Daniel Ochefu nearly stole the pass, and might have had he not slipped. Paige regained control. He gathered himself, quickly, for the attempt while Ryan Arcidiacono, the Villanova point guard, raced out to contest it, forcing Paige to alter his release.

And then …

And then “I think that Marcus willed that ball to go in,” Williams said. He can still see it clearly:

“The way he had to contort his body, and you watch and look at the pictures – that it’s just unbelievable. So it will be one of those shots and memories that I’ll always say, ‘I wish,’ because it’s not what it could have been. If we had gotten the game into overtime and won the game, then it would have been beyond my imagination.”

Rewatching the game

Alone in the basement, Paige watched the broadcast begin. It was the national title game all over again. The cameras panned the crowd. Paige recognized familiar faces of friends in the UNC student section. He noticed his family sitting behind the UNC bench.

“First I was like, that is pretty cool,” he said.

Paige graduated from UNC’s journalism school, and he appreciated the production value of the broadcast – the camera angles and the storytelling. And then, the longer the game went on, he paid more and more attention to the basketball. He went back onto the court in his mind.

“I started remembering stuff, just trying to think about my memory of it on the court versus what I’ve seen on TV,” Paige said. “But then in the second half, I got mad because we started getting some ticky-tack fouls, and they are making a lot of shots ...”

That’s when he began “getting frustrated,” he said, but he sat there, as helpless as any UNC fan who watched that night, and continued on through the ending. He knew what was coming and kept watching, anyway.

He wanted to hear Nantz’s call of his shot, see the moment again, the replays. When it went in, the crowd noise muffled Nantz’s words. It sounded like he said it was “impossible.” You can barely hear Bill Raftery in the background, screaming, “Onions!” his trademark euphemism.

Seconds after Paige’s shot went in, Nantz clearly asked, “How did he do that!?” Raftery said, “How about that kid … the little guy, with some major, ONIONS!”

“I thought it was pretty cool,” Paige said, again, of how the moment translated over television.

And then he watched what came next. For a while Paige didn’t find much joy in his shot. What did it mean? The Tar Heels lost. By mid-March, though, he said his perception of the moment had changed.

“Because now I just kind of look back and smile, laugh about it,” he said. “I mean, obviously it still hurts on the inside. But I’ve seen it so much and I get reminded of it so much, most of the time I hear about it’s through the perspective of the Carolina fan, and they’re just telling me how awesome that moment was.”

Paige said he’s heard from people who told him they ran around the house. Or that their kids went crazy. Paige is playing now for the Salt Lake City Stars in the NBA Developmental League, a long way from North Carolina. Yet UNC fans are everywhere, and then so are reminders.

In airports people have stopped to talk with him about his shot. At his games, sometimes fans mention it. Paige has reached a place of peace with the moment. He did everything he could. He gave himself a chance, and gave UNC a chance, too.

Frozen in time

Paige returned to the Smith Center on Feb. 18 with Johnson. They were there for a ceremony in their honor at halftime of the Tar Heels’ victory against Virginia. UNC gave both players a framed jersey. Their highlights played on the video boards.

There, again, was Paige’s shot. A shot that meant nothing, to the outcome. A shot that meant everything, still.

“I remember after, I was like, nobody’s going to understand how amazing that shot was because of what Kris did,” Pinson said. “But all Carolina fans know how important it was to everybody.”

Paige looked up and watched the replay. There he was regaining control. There he was bending his legs back behind him, double-clutching, releasing. The ball went in again, just like it always does, and there was a roar in the Smith Center. Paige kept his eyes on the screen, taking in the replay.

He shook his head slowly. He smiled slightly. He wore an expression that conveyed peace, appreciation and longing, all at once. The clip ended there, the moment frozen, the national championship game tied with 4.7 seconds remaining after Paige, to that point, made arguably the greatest shot in school history.

Andrew Carter: 919-829-8944, @_andrewcarter

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