CHAPEL HILL, North Carolina – Marcus Paige spent two months in an all-out fight with his shot, trying not to let frustration take over with each spun-off-the-rim floater and rattled-out 3-pointer.
The senior’s shot has come around at just the right time for Final Four-bound North Carolina.
Paige has scored in double figures for six straight games — his longest run all season — and shot 48 percent from behind the arc in the NCAA Tournament. Consider it a welcome (back) addition of a reliable perimeter scorer and shooter to an already deep offense entering Saturday’s national semifinal against Syracuse in Houston.
“I’m just playing more free and more confident and more relaxed,” Paige said Tuesday, “and the ball’s been going in.”
Those January and February shooting struggles sunk Paige’s season numbers for the Tar Heels (32-6), the No. 1 seed in the East Region that’s back in the Final Four for the first time since 2009. The slender 6-foot-2 native of Marion, Iowa, is averaging 12.3 points and shooting just 39.6 percent, while his free-throw shooting fell from about 86 percent over his first three seasons to 77.5 percent this year.
But in the NCAA Tournament, he’s averaged 14 points while making 13 of 27 3-pointers — highlighted by him hitting four quick 3s on the way to 21 points in the Sweet 16 win against Indiana.
“Sooner or later,” sophomore Joel Berry II said, “it was going to click.”
The shooting struggles were a head-scratcher for anyone who had watched North Carolina regularly over the past two years, let alone Paige and coach Roy Williams. He had carried the burden of needing to find his shot quickly to get the Tar Heels moving at full speed, and carried it well.
As his shot abandoned him, Paige focused on being one of the team’s top wing defenders and on other contributions until he could find it again. And UNC’s offense evolved to run first through 6-foot-10 Brice Johnson — named an Associated Press first-team All-American on Tuesday — with Paige in a complimentary role.
That helped the Tar Heels survive Paige’s prolonged slump, which would’ve been devastating over the past two years. They could be even tougher to slow now that Paige looks like himself again.
“I think he handled it better than anybody I’ve ever seen,” Williams said. “And he believed in what the staff was telling him about how he could still help us and what he was doing to help us. But it was tougher on him than anybody. He’s a perfectionist in about everything does.”
Paige had averaged a career-best 17.5 points as a sophomore and 14.1 points last year while playing with a lingering foot injury. He looked ready for a big year when he scored 20 points in his season debut against Maryland after missing six games with a hand injury.
A few weeks later, Paige went for a season-high 30 points at Florida State.
And then suddenly, he just couldn’t shoot.
He made 5 of 35 shots (14 percent) and 1 of 22 3-pointers (5 percent) over the next four games. As the games went on, his shooting didn’t significantly improve, with home crowds in the Smith Center eventually holding their breath every time Paige shot in hopes it would be the one that would break him loose.
On at least one occasion, Paige looked to the rafters in relief when a shot went through the net.
Those days appear to be behind him.
“I’ve always taken pride in trying to be a complete guard, but throughout the middle of the year, I kind of let my shot kind of halt the rest of my game,” Paige said. “I was too worried, too much thinking about whether or not I was making field goals and what my percentage was and all that stuff. … Just letting all that go was probably the biggest thing that’s helped me, especially this month.”