By Adam Lucas
DURHAM—It could only be Marcus Paige.
That’s the only person it could possibly be on the free throw line for Carolina with 8.8 seconds left in the regular season finale, holding a two-point lead over Duke. It was a one-and-one, don’t forget that. Miss the first one, and Duke has a chance to win.
Scratch that. Duke was going to win. You know it and so do I. Miss that first free throw, and the Blue Devils are going to come down the court and throw in something ridiculous, probably Grayson Allen firing it through while also reenacting the DiCaprio vs. bear scene from The Revenant to draw a foul.
Paige had been talking about an Atlantic Coast Conference regular season championship since Carolina’s win at Florida State on Jan. 4. Two full months, he’d been talking about it. Now he was the one taking the shots to seal it.
On the first row of Section 19, behind the Tar Heel bench, sat his mother, Sherryl. She’d flown in from Iowa because she had never seen her baby win at Cameron Indoor Stadium. And now that same baby was on the free throw line with 9,314 painted maniacs screaming at him.
She did what she always does: grabbed her silver charm bracelet and squeezed, and she said a quick prayer to her mother.
So there was Sherryl Paige, tense. There I was, barely able to look. There you were, whether on Franklin Street or in your dorm room or at the place you go when you go where you go, and none of us could imagine this moment, and taking these shots.
Then there was Marcus Paige.
“I was so happy I got to go to the line,” he said. “I wanted the ball in my hands. I can miss a million shots in a row and I feel like I will make the next one. I knew I was going to put the game on ice, and that felt really good.”
You know who that sounds like? Bobby Frasor at the line in Cameron in 2006, winking at a teammate before clinching the first of four straight wins in the building. Or Ty Lawson giggling when the Blue Devil students unleashed a torrent of “spirit fingers” at him in 2009. Or, now we are obligated to add, Brice Johnson turning in a massive 18-point, 21-rebound performance on Duke’s senior night in 2016.
And now, there’s Paige, who wanted nothing more to be the one to stand at that line and shoot those shots, at that exact second, for those stakes.
Just a quick side note: Do you ever stop to think about how lucky we are that we get to watch all these moments and call them ours? And we have not even yet mentioned Danny Green over Paulus or Tyler Hansbrough’s three-pointers or the 2012 team clinching a regular season title with a Cameron whipping.
To those, now we can add this one. And even if you couldn’t watch Paige take those free throws, the sounds were plenty telling. Take it from Theo Pinson. Remember him? He’s the one who went to the line with 24.1 seconds left in a four-point game. Pinson, a 68 percent free throw shooter for the year, had to make the front end of a one-and-one.
They were shots bigger than any he’d ever taken in his life. And they were also shots he takes every day. See, Pinson has a routine. Every day after practice, he can’t leave the Smith Center until he joins up with manager Chase Bengel and sinks ten straight free throws. So when he had those shots on Saturday night, he wasn’t thinking about Carolina-Duke or ESPN or even a regular season championship.
“I was thinking about all that work I’ve put in after practice,” Pinson said. “Just shoot my shot, and don’t think about anything else. Once I hit the first one, I knew the second one was guaranteed going in.”
Because he was so confident in the second shot, it gave him a little more opportunity to soak in the environment. This is what he saw, and heard, and felt:
“It was such a great feeling,” Pinson said. “They were screaming and going crazy. And then, when the shot went in, you could hear them go, ‘Awwwwwww.’ That was a feeling I will never forget.”
There’s something about this team that needs an obstacle before it can truly perform at its best. Be the preseason number-one ranked team and storm through the regular season with no issues? Nah, that would be too easy. Instead, let’s battle through some injury problems, cause outsiders to question the team’s toughness, and then and only then decide to hang a championship banner in the Smith Center rafters. They need something to overcome, because that makes it sweeter. "We've been through hell," is the way Paige put it, and that makes appreciating this regular season title a little easier.
You know that moment you shared with the person who watched the game with you? That hug with your brother or that high five with your roommate? The coaches get that, too. A couple minutes after the Tar Heels had sprinted off the court to celebrate their title in a raucous locker room, Roy Williams wrapped his son, Scott, in a giant embrace in a Cameron Indoor Stadium stairwell.
About that same moment, assistant coach Hubert Davis walked up the stairs and found his son, Elijah. “How are you doing, big fella?” Davis boomed. “How are you doing?” It may have been the loudest volume level I have ever heard emanate from the perpetually friendly Davis. It was the kind of night that required decibels. Lots of them. You work all day, every day, from mid-October to this moment for those types of hugs. Only one team gets them. This year, it's Carolina.
Behind Carolina’s bench sat Marvin Williams and Tyler Hansbrough. They played a game for the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets on Friday night, have another game on Monday night, but felt they absolutely had to be in Cameron on Saturday night. So they drove up for the game, and sat in the stands rooting like a couple of kids. They were mostly left alone by the Carolina fans, except for the requisite high fives after, say, Pinson tossed a lob to Brice Johnson for a sweet dunk.
And the Duke fans, they didn’t cause too much trouble for Hansbrough and Williams, either.
“They didn’t really have much to say,” Hansbrough said.
Well, I wouldn’t think so. What would they say to the man who owns a 4-0 career mark as a player in Durham? “Welcome home, Mr. Hansbrough?”
Paige, who said he’s taken note at each road shootaround this year that it will be his last time in a particular gym, got the opportunity to savor his final seconds in Cameron. He was fouled again with two seconds to play, and he drilled them both again. During and after his shots, though, he allowed himself a moment.
“I saw my family right behind the bench,” he said. “I saw my teammates, and there was so much joy. Brice, after the effort he has given us all year, and he’s one of the four or five best players in the country, and he’s in tears.
“We finally overcame everything. We finally proved the doubters wrong. I don’t really have words to describe it.”
Out on Coach K Court, Sherryl Paige hadn’t had a chance yet to talk to her son. She was still accepting congratulations and posing for pictures, and if we are being honest, she was still shaking just a little.
“I am so, so happy for him,” she said. Her eyes welled. On this night, that felt perfect. After all her son’s team had endured, and after all they had been through, and after all the dreams and the doubts and the disappointments, how else could she possibly feel?
She was overcome.