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So Marcus Paige will never have that national championship.
It’s devastating to get so close and come up short. It’s something that will always travel with you wherever you go. It’s something that will make you think “If only for this or if not for that” for the rest of your life.
And yet ...
The Linn-Mar High graduate will always be remembered as someone who not only didn’t flinch in the most-pressurized of college basketball situations, but who met the moment and soared above it. While Paige would surely disagree in his typically civil and articulate way, I’ll suggest what he did Monday night in Houston was as good as winning the NCAA men’s basketball title and perhaps better.
Paige’s North Carolina team trailed Villanova 70-64 with under two minutes left. The senior guard proceeded to make three enormous plays that gave his club a chance to go to overtime.
The first was when he made a deep corner 3-pointer with 1:35 left to cut the gap to 70-67. If he had missed that and Villanova rebounded, the Wildcats probably would have tucked the game away and it wouldn’t be recalled as one of the most-memorable contests in college basketball history.
The second play was, with Villanova up 72-69, Paige missed a contested layup. He wrestled away the rebound, and made a follow-up shot to make it 72-71. Both the rebound and the shot were not only unlikely, but incredible.
‘Nova made two foul shots with 13 seconds left for a 74-71 lead, and you know the third play. Paige’s double-pump, 25-footer that tied the game with 4.7 seconds remaining will forever stand as one of the greatest shots in NCAA tournament history.
“The little guy with some major onions to tie this thing up!” commentator Bill Raftery hollered on the TBS telecast.
Paige finished with 21 points, 6 assists, 5 rebounds, and just one turnover in 34 minutes. He had 17 second-half points. He scored 15 of those in the last nine minutes.
But Villanova used those last 4.7 seconds to get the shot it wanted, and Kris Jenkins swished the 3-pointer to give his team a championship it richly deserved. Just as Carolina would have richly deserved it had the game gone to overtime and the Tar Heels had prevailed.
But as Paige attends his school’s May 8 commencement ceremony as a first-team Academic All-American after double-majoring in journalism and history, his head should be held as high as any that wears the graduation cap that day.
That’s not because he made a lot of shots and was part of a lot of wins. Rather, it’s because he was willing — make that insistent — to shoulder the burden in a moment when someone had to step up. Also, and more importantly, it’s because he was an articulate model of civility and ego-free behavior through his four years at UNC.
That’s no surprise to those who knew him at Linn-Mar or observed him in high school gyms across the Mississippi Valley Conference and at the state tournament in Des Moines.
Most of us understand the world is larger than our own area code. That said, there’s nothing wrong with celebrating those who are from that area code, who are from the same streets and schools and cities as us.
What we saw Monday night was a young man from our neighborhood who seized the kind of moment few of us will ever experience. After Paige had answered question after question in postgame interview sessions, many reporters wrote and tweeted about how gracious he was in such a painful moment.
For a guy who just had his heart ripped out, Marcus Paige's eloquence in the locker room was like nothing I've ever, ever witnessed before.— Brian Hamilton (@BrianHamiltonSI) April 5, 2016
Marcus Paige gave a transcendent performance all the way around. Good for him and his family. Linn-Mar, the city of Marion, Linn County, and the state of Iowa should claim him with pride.