Not Quite Like Mike

Confetti, cracked dreams and crying in front of Jordan: what it feels like one year later for UNC's Marcus Paige, whose one shining moment got erased by the ultimate March Madness buzzer-beater

By Brandon Sneed

March 15, 2017

What a shot it was. A mind-bending, gooseflesh-inducing, double-clutch three-pointer from deep, his body twisting and hanging in the air, like he’d been CGI’d into a movie as some kind of left-handed master of hoop-fu. He’d pumped to avoid a block and maybe to pass, then decided to shoot anyway, and it was sublime.

And it wasn’t just the shot itself that was so beautiful, of course, but also the timing—the moment. When the ball dropped through the net, North Carolina’s comeback was complete and Marcus Paige pumped his fist, having just tied the national championship game against Villanova with 4.7 seconds left.

Even Michael Jordan, the Carolina legend who’s seen a clutch shot or two in his life and was watching from behind his old college team’s bench, got so excited he raised not one but both fists and extended them toward the heavens.

Five minutes earlier, North Carolina had been down by 10. Paige had pulled the guys together and told them, “Yo, we can fold and act like we’ve lost this game, or we can try to make this interesting. Live in the next five minutes. See what happens.”

Marcus Paige hits a three-point shot to tie the game with seconds left during the NCAA championship game against the Villanova Wildcats on April 4, 2016, in Houston. (Getty Images)

Then he’d led the final charge. He hit a three a minute earlier than his last shot and a moment after that, he ripped down an offensive rebound and put it back up for two more. And then, that shot, the greatest shot in the history of North Carolina basketball. Even better than Jordan’s 1982 championship winner. Or at least, it would have been.

But then Villanova point guard Ryan Arcidiacono brought the ball back down the court, and although most expected the senior point guard to take the last shot, he passed instead to a trailing Kris Jenkins, who rose up and stroked home a three, splashing it in at the buzzer.

The confetti rained down around them, and Paige’s shot didn’t matter, a legend made and unmade in a mad March instant.

✦ ✦ ✦


Now it’s about a year later, and Paige and Arcidiacono are still going at it, but in a very different arena. In fact, “arena” is overselling it. It’s the Salt Lake City Community College gym, and the fans number not in the tens of thousands, nor even in the thousands, but in the hundreds. Paige is a guard for the NBA D-League’s Salt Lake City Stars, Arcidiacono for the Austin Spurs.

It’s not exactly where Paige thought he would be at this point in his career.

“There’s a lot of things you can think about when you’re playing in an empty gym,” he says.

And that’s always been one of his…maybe not problems, because you can’t knock a guy for liking to think. (Especially these days, right?) And Paige does love to think. He loves thinking so much that he accidentally double-majored in history. He first majored in public relations at Carolina, then realized he’d taken so many history electives that he could finish up another major too. So he did.

“[People] were saying it would’ve replaced [Jordan’s] shot as the best in Tar Heel history.”


He especially likes arguing. Just for the exercise of it. “I argue about anything I can,” he says. “Even when I agree with something, I’ll play devil’s advocate. It gets on my fiancee’s nerves.”

But all of that thinking, the mental gymnastics of arguing and reasoning, can wear on you after a while. This is partially why his favorite part of a basketball game is the end.

“When the game is on the line, that’s when you just have to play,” he says. “And you can’t worry about anything else. … They used to call me Second-Half Paige. Even my sophomore year, I think I averaged 4.5 points in the first half and like 13.5 in the second.”  (To be specific, he actually averaged 6.0 in the first half and 11.6 in the second and overtime, but you get the point.)

Image title

Marcus Paige brings the ball up the court during an NBA D-League game on November 15, 2016, in Oklahoma City. (Getty Images)

Anyway, because he’s polite and smart, Paige says he’s not just content but happy here in Salt Lake City. And why shouldn’t he be? He has a good contract. His fiancée, Taylor Hartzog, is here with him. The mountains that surround them are stunning. Life is good.

But it’s not the NBA, and you can’t help but wonder where he might be if Jenkins had missed his game-winning shot. In this world, maybe being seen as a legend is the boost one needs over being the guy who almost was.

One legendary shot followed by another? That kind of thing rarely happens. It requires a precise sort of voodoo. Big moment, big game, big shot. And yet it occurred in the NCAA championship game, one after the other, bang-bang.

It has happened before, someone getting Marcus Paiged in March Madness. The biggest one that comes to mind is Sean Woods. Don’t know his name? How about Christian Laettner? In that 1992 East Regional Final, the reason Duke had the ball on the baseline under Kentucky’s basket trailing 103-102 with 2.1 seconds left in overtime—that was all because Woods had just hit a clutch running floater in the lane.

“I got to be in that moment, at the pinnacle of college basketball. ... Everybody in the college basketball world wants to be there. It was fun, man.”


After the Laettner game, though, Woods didn’t play much more. He was on the Indiana Pacers’ preseason roster the next season but didn’t make the team. From there, he went into coaching, running camps and working his way through a few coaching jobs before becoming the head coach at Morehead State in 2012. He recently resigned after being accused of assaulting two of his players. Woods had a hearing scheduled for Feb. 9 that was moved to March 13. He is charged with one count of battery resulting in bodily injury, according to the Evansville, Indiana, police.

Then there was Kevin Pittsnogle, whose shot for No. 6 West Virginia in 2006’s Sweet Sixteen matchup against No. 2 Texas would’ve been plenty legendary, too. He returned from a bloodied nose to hit a three with five seconds left, tying the game at 71—only for Kenton Paulino to pull a Kris Jenkins and hit a three at the buzzer. Despite expecting to be drafted, Pittsnogle only played for various CBA and D-League teams, never making the NBA. He sold cars for a while and now teaches at the high school in Martinsburg, West Virginia.

But—and maybe this is because he is smart—Paige doesn’t think of The Shots that way, as some sort of divine doors that dictate his path in life, though he wouldn’t mind if people maybe quit asking about them so much. Everyone asks about them. Reporters slip a question in at the end of interviews. Fans at airports tell him they’ll always remember. It’s nice in a way. Like Woods, he knows he was part of a Moment, capital M.

Not to say he didn’t wish it had gone down differently.

The North Carolina Tar Heels walk off the court following the 2016 NCAA championship game against Villanova. (Getty Images)

“[People] were saying it would’ve replaced [Jordan’s] shot as the best in Tar Heel history,” Paige says. “But other than that, I’m not sure how much it would’ve actually changed how my life has been since.”

He thinks for a minute. “It would be cooler,” he adds with a grin. “Because I’d have a better ring on my finger.”  

And not to say it didn’t hurt. Of course it did. It took Paige until after summer league to finally sit down and watch the game for the first time. That’s why he just doesn’t know what else to say to that one same question everyone keeps asking. Man, how did that FEEL? He laughs now:

“I want to say, ‘If that happened to you, how would you feel?’ And that’s the only question they ask. And there’s so much other stuff around it. Like, it sucked. Confetti’s falling on me. I spent four years trying to get here. I cried.”

Image title

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams and Paige react after the 2016 NCAA championship game. (Getty Images)

Even Jordan made him mad that night. His Airness visited the Tar Heels’ locker room after the game. Paige remembers him telling them he knew how they felt, that they would be OK.

“It was cool to see him,” Paige says, laughing, “but I was still crying and upset. I didn’t really appreciate it, because the only thing going through my mind was, This dude won the national championship. He’s been to six Finals and won them all. He can’t relate to us right now. … Like, ‘You guys’ll be OK.’ Like, that’s easy for you to say! You made the shot. Won the game. Had the best career ever! What about us?”

But when he finally did watch the game…it was fun. “I felt like we were going to win,” he says. “We were coming back. Even though I knew we weren’t going to win, I still got excited.”

And then…Jenkins.

Villanova's Kris Jenkins shoots the winning shot against North Carolina—and celebrates—in the 2016 NCAA championship game. (Getty Images) 

Maybe the craziest thing about what Jenkins did is that Paige had spent all season rooting for the guy. They were friends. Jenkins is the adopted brother of Paige’s Carolina teammate, guard Nate Britt. Jenkins came down to Chapel Hill every summer to hang out, work out and play pickup with them. Jenkins had stayed in Paige’s house. They were buddies. Paige pulled for Jenkins all year and then…there he was, shooting that shot.  

And then he came back down to Chapel Hill. Yes, after killing them like that in the national title game. So he and Paige hooped again. They hung out.

But no—they didn’t talk about it.

✦ ✦ ✦

Now, out here in Salt Lake City and in the small gyms around the D-League, Paige has been fighting a familiar feeling from his senior year at Carolina.

He didn’t shoot great most of the year, just wasn’t himself. He was trying to prove that he was still that same sophomore NBA scouts thought so highly of.

But then came that which he has since taken from The Shots: not some sort of wistful regret that things did not go differently, but rather, the gift of knowing what it first took to get there at all.

Come the ACC tournament that stressful senior year, he told himself to quit worrying and just enjoy the ride, because “any of those games could be my last.”

After that, he says: “I started playing a lot better. Stopped pressing so much. And it was just so much fun. That was the most fun I’ve ever had, just going through the ACC tournament and then into the NCAA tournament. And I was playing well. I wasn’t worried about anything.”

And so then he found himself hanging in the air with the national championship in the balance and the eyes of millions upon him. He decided to shoot after second-guessing himself, and then he felt the magic.

“I got to be in that moment, at the pinnacle of college basketball,” he says. “And succeed in that moment. Everybody in the college basketball world wants to be there. It was fun, man.”

Image title

Paige during a game against the San Antonio Spurs during the 2016 Utah Summer League on July 4, 2016, in Salt Lake City. (Getty Images)

But then, after the championship game, the Brooklyn Nets drafted him, then traded him to the Utah Jazz, then the Jazz bumped him down to the D-League because their roster was full, and now…well, now, here he is. He’s gone from taking charter planes to flying coach, from hooping against Arcidiacono in front of 74,000 people in Houston’s NRG Stadium—not to mention 3.4 million live video streams and 22.3 million viewers on television—to 300 semi-bored fans in a community college gym.

And he started stressing again. “I’ve never been in this situation,” he says. “I was pressing to have good numbers and impress people.”

This particular night against Arcidiacono, he plays OK. Paige starts the game with an early jumper that looks smooth, easy and free. Then he gets into foul trouble and sits a bit and struggles with his rhythm the rest of the game, shooting 5-of-13 for 13 points.

Even still, out here against Arcidiacono again, they are two old March Madness rivals, yeah, but it’s clear one is superior. Throughout, Paige looks bigger, quicker, more confident. He asserts himself while Arcidiacono often disappears. (Arcidiacono finishes with five points, hitting one three-pointer and two free throws.) Beyond Arcidiacono, among everyone on the court, in this little gym in front of this little crowd, Paige looks like he belongs somewhere bigger.

His Stars lose due to some truly awful officiating—the crowds aren’t the only things lacking in the D-League. One more thing to think about. But he’s feeling more like the Marcus Paige he wants to be.

“Making the most of it,” he says. “Just focusing on what I need to do in the moment, and getting better, and playing the right way.”

He’s been working on his defense. He’s studying Patty Mills, a fellow 6-foot-ish guard, to learn the best ways to make a living as such in the NBA. He’s trying to play as well in first halves as he does in seconds. He’s making sure to take notice when, even before these tiny crowds in these tiny gyms, there are kids wearing UNC jerseys with the number five. That happens often. And he’s feeling more like he did during his run up to that shot. Pressing less. Having more fun. Worrying less every week.

The other night, he even hit a game-winning three.

Correction: The story has been updated to note Sean Woods had several coaching (but not head coaching) jobs before Morehead State.

Brandon Sneed is a writer-at-large for B/R Mag, and the author of Head In The Game: The Mental Engineering of the World's Elite Athletes (out now from Dey Street). His writing has also appeared in Outside, ESPN The Magazine, SB Nation Longform, and more, and has received mention in The Best American Sports Writing. His website is Follow him on Twitter: @brandonsneed.


Click here to get B/R Mag on the go in the B/R app for more sports storytelling worth your time, wherever you are.