HOUSTON — For the last time in his career, Marcus Paige walked through the North Carolina locker room, still wearing his white No. 5 uniform.
As he walked, the cameras followed in a silent procession, cutting through a room that was void of the carefree laughter that filled it just a day earlier.
Most players sat alone in the aftermath of the 77-74 national championship loss to No. 2-seed Villanova, towels draped around their necks or over their heads, blank stares on their faces and eyes still bloodshot. The players who weren’t left alone spoke in uneven sentences, about the improbability of the last possession, the brotherhood from this season that would never be recreated and the love between them and their coach.
As Paige sat down in a lone metal folding chair in the back of the locker room, a massive banner of he and his teammates grinning broadly wearing Final Four hats, celebrating the East Regional championship hung to his left.
He sat down in the seat, breathing hard, pulling at the ends of the towel around his neck.
In that moment, he wasn’t gasping for air because he was out of breath, but because he was out of time.
4.7 seconds before Kris Jenkins’ shot dropped through the net and the confetti fell, Paige thought he had given himself more time. On a night when so many of UNC’s simple shots didn’t fall, a circus shot — a double-pump 3-pointer — tied the national championship and gave Paige a program record 39 career NCAA Tournament 3-pointers.
“I don’t know that I’ve ever had anybody make a tougher shot than Marcus Paige made,” coach Roy Williams said.
The crowd roared. Jaws dropped. Small seat cushions distributed to most of the 74,340 fans flew in the air.
“You’re so close to that moment,” Paige said. “You’re 4.7 seconds away from winning the game because I told the team we were going to win if we got to overtime. All we had to do was get to overtime and the game was ours, and I truly believe that and I think our whole team believes that.”
Amid the chaos, Williams called a timeout to discuss the final 4.7 seconds.
A player does mental math when that kind of thing happens. Only so many dribbles, passes and shots can happen in such a short amount of time. And the odds that those maneuvers change the outcome of the game? Often slim.
“You have a mental clock in your head as Ryan (Arcidiacono) is bringing the ball up the court,” Paige said. “You kind of know. You get caught watching the ball. I think that happened to a couple of us, hoping the clock would run out instead of defending to the end.”
So the Tar Heels (33-7) did the calculations and hoped. Hoped that by Kris Jenkins inbounding the ball, he wouldn’t have time to find a shot. Hoped that by denying deep, UNC could hang on for a fresh clock, an even score and a sixth national championship.
Even without scoring a single transition point, the Tar Heels had erased a 10-point deficit, thanks in large part to two late, improbable shots by Paige. It was fate, it had to have been. A few more seconds would lead to a few more minutes and then they would be cutting down nets.
But their mental math didn’t add up the way they thought.
With 255 made 3-pointers this season, there was no way Jenkins wasn’t taking that shot.
Standing on the sideline, Theo Pinson saw it before it happened, and he tried to yell.
“I had a feeling when Kris was taking the ball out,” Pinson said. “And I was yelling it but I had to stop because they weren’t listening so I just let it play out. That was a great shot by Kris.”
“Good play. Trail man. He let it go.”
When the ball found Jenkins (14 points) to the right of the top of the key, a bad feeling washed over Paige.
A couple of breaths earlier, Paige was on the right side of history — the side of history that kids dream about in front of driveway basketball goals in Marion, Iowa.
But as Arcidiacono tossed the ball backwards to the trailing Jenkins, who pulled up for the shot a second before Isaiah Hicks got in his face, that dream was yanked away just as fast as it materialized.
“As soon as he got it off, all you can do is pray when the ball is in the air,” Paige said. “It felt like it was in the air forever. He just knocked it down and the fireworks go off right then and the moment that you had been clawing for, fighting every day for, hoping for, dreaming about, just goes away that fast.”
Before the points were even on the scoreboard, the indoor fireworks shot off and the Villanova players rushed onto the court as the Tar Heels slumped in disbelief.
Seconds earlier, UNC fans had been throwing orange seat cushions in the air in jubilation. But almost as soon as the last North Carolina-thrown cushion hit the ground, another wave of exuberant tosses exploded through the arena as Villanova fans filled the air with their own cushions, celebrating their first national championship since 1985.
With one 3-point shot, Jenkins fractured a dream that felt only a few minutes away from fulfillment. A group so close to adding their names to the annals of Tobacco Road basketball royalty in front of more than 50 former Tar Heels, instead left the program’s first national title game in six years empty handed.
“Sean (May) and Bobby Frasor talked about getting a seat at the table at Carolina,” Paige said. “There’s only five seats at that table with 57, 82, 93, 2005, 2009. We had a chair pulled all the way to that table and we just couldn’t quite get there.
“It’s something that’ll probably haunt me for the rest of my life. And I’m sure a lot of the guys in here are thinking about what if or what could we have done. But at the same time, we’re definitely going to have a deep appreciation for the run we had and how great of a team we were this year.”
After four years, 141 games and 1,844 points, Paige walked off the court without realizing his ultimate goal. His final season was remarkable as he came back from a broken wrist and a shooting slump to lead his team all the way to the national championship game.
And yet, despite all his success, Paige still fell 4.7 seconds short of ending his career the only way that he felt he could.
“At some point tonight, I’ll have to take this jersey off and I’ll never get to be a Tar Heel again in the moment,” Paige said. “But this group had so much fun. From locker rooms to bus trips to hotels. We really enjoyed coming to practice every day. Being ourselves. Being that loose group, having fun. And just being who we were.
“That’s done. That’s over. We’ll never get that back. The memory now we’ll have is one half-step shorter than the memory we wanted to have.”