If Marcus Paige and Roy Williams aren’t ACC Player and Coach of the Year, someone needs to demand a recount.
Paige solidified the fact that he is not only the most valuable and most important player on his team in Wednesday night’s amazing win at N.C. State, but he is arguably the best player in the entire ACC and now needs to be favored for the Cousy Award as the top point guard in the college game.
Williams’ tough stretch over the last 18 months has been well documented, but his last 18 days have shown some of his finest coaching moments. His once-floundering Tar Heels have found their identity in running their win streak to 10 straight, beating two ranked teams and winning three games on the road to secure a top four finish in the ACC, a bye into the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament and a bullet next to their rising RPI for NCAA seeding.
The fact that Carolina still struggles at the foul line and players take turns disappearing from game to game have made both Paige and Williams the constants in a turn-around season that now stands at 21-7 and 11-4 in the ACC. The coach who never gives in and his “tough little sucker” from Iowa have combined to give Carolina Basketball its old cachet.
Alumni and fans now love this team, and it has provided them a lot to love. The Tar Heels won four games in eight days (caused by the Duke snow-out), beating physical Pitt at its own style, rallying from a big hole at Florida State, bamboozling the Blue Devils with a 1-3-1 second-half zone that Williams pulled out of mothballs, and finishing 4-0 by walloping woeful Wake Forest on 36 hours rest.
Paige’s second-half scoring bursts are becoming so legendary that opponents know they are coming but seem powerless to stop them. His 31 second-half points at State rank along with Charlie Scott’s second-half heroics in the 1969 ACC Championship game against Duke (28 points to erase a double-digit deficit) and Phil Ford hanging 34 on Duke with a bum wrist in his last home game in 1978.
As a freshman, Paige was a steady point guard who made some big shots, but was never thought of as a scoring threat. Williams knew he could be, having watched him pile up points in a hurry as a high school star in Iowa. But not even Ol’ Roy could imagine how complete of a player Paige has become, confirming Dean Smith’s old adage that the most improvement occurs from the freshman to the sophomore season. Paige has certainly proven the legendary coach correct.
The tough little lefty does it all. He is deadly from three-point range, deftly getting open off screens set by teammates. He stops and pops in the lane. He drives to the hole with either hand and lays it in or floats up a tear drop. His superb floor game and court vision set up others for easier shots.
And, oh yes, he shoots 90 percent from the foul line on an otherwise free-throw-challenged club.
Paige played 41 minutes at State and seemed like he could play another game after his high speed drive rallied Carolina from a dreadful start in overtime. He added six rebounds, including beating two guys twice his size to a critical offensive board late in the game, had five assists and only one turnover. He plays sneaky-good defense, moving his feet so well that he did not commit a foul against the snake-bitten Wolfpack.
Williams works his bench of role players, trying different combinations all game long to find who has it on that particular day. Besides Paige, Jean-Pierre Tokoto flew around for 16 points and 10 rebounds against State until cramps grounded him for much of the last 10 minutes. Kennedy Meeks also grabbed 10 rebounds and is getting strong around the basket, although he still has a long way to go.
The sub-par play on this night came from James Michael McAdoo, who scored in double figures for a 15-game stretch, but missed 14 of his 20 assorted shots, and Leslie McDonald was as bad in Raleigh as he was good the last two games and committed what Williams called “the silliest foul” he had ever seen with 1.7 seconds left to allow the game to get into overtime.
The Marcus Paige Show matched baskets with State’s T.J. Warren, who had an almost equally spectacular 36 points. But the ACC’s leading scorer missed two critical free throws and lost the ball in overtime that awoke Carolina after falling behind by six 2:30 into the extra period. Warren’s one weakness is that he doesn’t go left very well, but he has so many other ways of getting himself and the ball to the basket that he is bound to be a lottery pick in next June’s NBA draft.
And to be perfectly candid, State could not have lost this game without the vacuous coaching of Mark Gottfried.
On Warren’s killer turnover, Gottfried did not call an inbounds play that kept his star from being trapped in the corner at the Carolina bench. And after State took its last lead with 6 seconds to play, Gottfried’s defense let Meeks throw the ball to a wide-open Paige for his 70-foot flight to the winning layup. No forcing another Tar Heel to handle it, no double-teaming mercurial Marcus when he did get the ball, and not a single switch on the screens that gave Paige an open lane to the beautiful bank shot and a place with other Tar Heel heroes of Carolina lore.
After losing for the 16th time in the last 17 games to its hated rival, the sellout crowd at the PNC Center filed out in an NC State of shock, as Paige and his teammates celebrated with their coach this suddenly remarkable season.