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After 4 years, North Carolina's Marcus Paige has his Final Four moment

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After four years of ups and downs, Marcus Paige is finishing a season, and a career, on college basketball's biggest stage.

PHILADELPHIA --€” Not yet. Not quite yet. As he glided back down the Wells Fargo Center floor with the majority of 17,000 people standing and the arena clock showing 1:18, Marcus Paige was putting everything he had into fighting back a smile. And he was succeeding.

Now up 83-71 after two Brice Johnson free throws, Paige and his North Carolina teammates were headed to a place they had never been before. But even as they sucked the remaining seconds off the clock with an offensive possession that evoked the Four Corners, Paige's eyes zeroed in. They didn't steal a glance up at the adoring crowd. Not yet.

"You want to stay in the moment and make sure that what you're seeing is going to happen," Paige said. "It was hard, it was really hard. I was so overwhelmed and excited."

Then, with 46 seconds left, Paige stepped to the free-throw line and sank 3-of-3 freebies. Back on his defensive end, caddy corner to his team's bench, he began to bob up and down, his white jersey and shorts hopping with him. He had cracked. Emotion broke free from restraint. His tongue came out of his mouth, and a smile swept his face.

Moments later, with Johnson again at the free-throw line, Paige started to tear up. He looked towards the bench, then towards his family in the first row behind it. Then he turned towards the crowd, clapped his hands and poured four years of feeling into three words:

"Final Four, baby!"

*   *   *

Before Marcus Paige could even conceive of the Final Four, back in 2010, the words "North Carolina" represented a dream, but not an opportunity.

Paige was a Tar Heel boy. He named his dog after Vince Carter, who starred at North Carolina from 1995-98. He idolized Carter, and despite growing up 800 miles away from Chapel Hill, in Marion, Iowa, he worshiped the UNC program.

With his recruitment simmering prior to his junior year of high school, Paige was talking to Bill Self and Kansas, who had gone 33-3 the season before. He was talking to newly hired Fred Hoiberg and Iowa State, and to recently appointed Fran McCaffery and Iowa.

The call from Williams, however, had not yet come.

Then it did, and Paige "freaked out."

Soon thereafter, Paige was playing in Milwaukee, and longtime Williams assistant C.B. McGrath was watching him. It was the first time Carolina had sent an assistant to evaluate him.

Whether it was nerves or a fluke occurrence, Paige was misfiring. After the underwhelming performance, he said during an emotional senior day speech, "I thought my chance to play at my dream school was over."

But the calls from McGrath kept coming, and Williams started watching. Eventually, the UNC head coach turned Paige's dream into an opportunity.

*   *   *

Marcus Paige thought about it every day. The Final Four. The place where Sean May, Rashad McCants and Raymond Felton had been. The place where Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green had been. The place where he and Brice Johnson had not been.

For four years, Paige's run at the Final Four had been tinged with doubt, just as his run at his dream school had been years before.

Paige came to Chapel Hill thinking he'd play "five or six minutes a game." But Kendall Marshall left early for the NBA, and suddenly the keys to the Carolina offense were handed to the youngster from Iowa.

"It was a rude awakening for him," Williams said.

Paige admits he "wasn't necessarily prepared to be a high-level ACC guard." His turnover rate soared above 25 percent, and his offensive rating drooped below 100.

Paige was stellar as a sophomore, but the pieces weren't in place around him. He entered his junior year as the ACC Preseason Player of the Year, but was dogged by plantar fasciitis and an ankle injury that would require offseason surgery.

Then, during an early November practice ahead of his senior year, just days before Paige's last shot at a Final Four was set to commence, his hand awkwardly snagged on the jersey of teammate Luke Maye. A bone snapped. Paige returned a month later, but he wasn't himself. He ceded lead ball-handling duties to Joel Berry, and his three-point shooting dipped below 35 percent.

"He was standing on a beach and couldn't throw it in the ocean," Williams said. "And it really bothered him."

Paige puts a lot of pressure on himself. Early in his career, Williams had more confidence in Paige than Paige did in himself. "I believe in you, son," Williams would say. As Paige still labored with his three-point shot, unable to find the ocean -- he went 1-for-22 over a four-game January stretch -- €”Williams and his assistants would urge him to keep shooting.

More helpful than words from his coaches, though, was the play of his teammates.

"I was struggling, and we still ran off 12 games in a row," Paige said. "So, as long as we were winning, I was happy. It was helping me get through the frustration. A chance to get to the Final Four was the one thing I've wanted my entire career."

On Friday, he was two games away, and 32 seconds into the biggest game of his life to date, Paige stared down a three, and drilled it. Minutes later, he drilled another one. And then a third. And a fourth. Within five minutes. His six threes on the night were his most of the season, and he led the Tar Heels to Sweet 16 victory.

But Paige wasn't "back." He was one game away.

*   *   *

Roy Williams' first taste of the Final Four as a head coach was with Kansas, twice, in the early 90s. Since then, he's had four great generations of players pass through his programs. The second, Nick Collison, Kirk Heinrich and Drew Gooden, got to the Final Four in 2002 and 2003. The third, Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants, won a title in 2005. The fourth, Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Danny Green and Wayne Ellington, won one in 2009.

The first, the late-90s group of Scott Pollard, Raef Lafrentz, Jerod Haase and Paul Pierce, never got there. And that's why in 2007, 10 years after that Jayhawks team lost to Arizona in the Sweet 16, Williams' voice was cracking. He held off his emotions pretty well throughout his Hall of Fame induction speech. But now they were powering through as he addressed the 1997 team.

"I failed because I didn't get you to a Final Four," he told them.

Sometime over the past four years, Williams realized he had another special group. And he ached, not because of his cartilage-free knees or his bad shoulder, but because he couldn't bear the thought of possibly failing again.

"The worst feeling I've ever had is thinking about my '97 team at Kansas," Williams said on Sunday. "And that was something I'll never get over. This one would have been even tougher. I've never wanted anything in my life for someone else as much as I wanted to get this bunch to the Final Four."

Pressure had been gnawing at Williams. The pressure he felt heading into the second-round game against Providence, he said on Saturday, was like nothing he had ever felt before. He then felt it again on Friday against Indiana. But it wasn't the pressure of a six-year Final Four absence. It was the pressure of the looming end to the careers of Paige and Johnson. Both have blossomed as players, even as they've dealt with uncertainty surrounding the program brought on by an academic scandal.

"It's been especially hard on [Williams]," Paige said. "We've had kind of the residual effects from it, dealing with questions that don't really apply to us. That stuff happened before us, so we're all frustrated, like, why are we talking about this? We have all the new academic standards put in place, and we're going to tutoring sessions, and meeting with academic advisers all the time, and they're checking everything we do."

That's why Williams is so appreciative. He calls his time on the court with Paige, Johnson and their teammates his "salvation."

"This team has been special because of all the stuff that they've handled during their four years," he said.

*   *   *

Now Isaiah Hicks and Nate Britt lurched to the scorer's table. The horn sounded for a split second. First it was Hicks, replacing Johnson, and the crowd roared. And then it was Paige, bounding towards the bench, hugging everyone in sight. Williams. Kennedy Meeks. More teammates. McGrath.

When Paige got his moment with Johnson, his roommate and classmate, Johnson hoisted Paige off the floor, bringing their shoulders and heads level, their arms around each other. "Four years!" Johnson exclaimed. "Four years!" Paige echoed.

As Paige's career played out over those four years, at times accelerating, at times decelerating, there were points at which it seemed he might fizzle out. There were points at which his Hansbrough moment, his Felton moment, seemed farther away than ever. There was also a time, remember, when a North Carolina scholarship hung from a ledge that his scrawny, 6'1, 16-year-old frame couldn't reach. That's what made his hugs so strong and his smiles so bright Sunday night.

"To go through it all, the ups and the downs, it's made us a stronger bunch," Paige said. "And it makes this even more rewarding."

When there were no more hugs to be had, no more podiums to ascend, no more Final Four hats to tug on, Paige found himself surrounded by TV cameras and microphones. He dutifully, sometimes enthusiastically answered questions: about his message to his teammates during a timeout, about a second-half run, about his team's depth. €”

And then he cracked, and, mid-question, bolted jubilantly off to the other end of the court, breaking free from the encirclement.

"I'm sorry, I'm going to cut down that net!"

* * *

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