The Tar Heels, however, know unequivocally who their Most Valuable Player is.
“For us, tonight, he’s No. 1 without a doubt,” junior forward James Michael McAdoo said. “He really put the team on his back, and tonight we needed him.”
The self-proclaimed college basketball junkie keeps up with all the chatter. Paige knows who is doing what, but said he never compares himself to the other great players around the league and nation. And he never stops to wonder why his name doesn’t come up more with major honors.
“I promise you I don’t think about it one second,” Paige said. “We’ve won a lot of games in a row now and the other stuff takes care of itself. If you keep winning coach says the accolades and such come with themselves. I’d much rather come out of here with a win and score zero than lose and score 50.”
Carolina won its 10th straight game, its longest win streak since the 2008-09 national title season.
Paige isn’t likely to get on a roll the way Kemba Walker did with UConn in 2011, where he can singlehandedly carry the team to the national title. But he’s more than capable of having games like Wednesday, where he takes control when the Heels are struggling.
Senior guard Leslie McDonald said Paige knows when to turn it on and when it’s not needed.
“He knows in late-game situations or any type of situation he knows when to take over,” McDonald said. “That’s the amazing thing about him -- he’s a point guard who can take over games.”
Carolina players don’t get surprised anymore when they see Paige erupt for big points after halftime. Against Florida State, Paige scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half. Against Duke, he scored all 13 of his points in the second half.
He was 2-for-6 with four points against the Wolfpack at halftime and missed both of his 3-pointers. In the second half, he helped the Heels erase a nine-point deficit by going 5-of-7 from 3-point range, scoring 21 points. He topped off his career night with 10 points in overtime, including the winning layup.
“The little fella was just off the charts,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “Marcus did not play very well in the first half but in the second half that’s about as good an exhibition as I’ve ever seen.”
Freshman guard Nate Britt said the Heels have come to expect Paige’s second-half heroics, although no one ever talks about it.
“We don’t really put that pressure on him,” Britt said. “But everyone sort of knows it’s coming.”
Paige and Carolina have grown in leaps since their first late-game situation this season. Leading Belmont by two with 20 seconds left, Paige turned the ball over while being trapped. The Heels were disjointed down one with no timeouts left, and J.P. Tokoto ended up getting the final shot.
Tokoto, who ended up watching the final minutes against NC State on the bench with a sore wrist, said everyone knew where the ball was going when the Pack left an opening with 7.7 seconds left in overtime.
“What started going through my mind was, ‘Marcus get the ball, Marcus get the ball,’” Tokoto said. “I’m pretty sure all my teammates were thinking the same thing. When he got the ball on the in-bounds play, when he hit that screen, I knew he was going to finish.”
Carolina didn’t have any timeouts left and didn’t have any doubt Paige was the right player to take the shot. That he called for the ball showed that he wants to take the final shot. And that he delivered just proved he’s come a long way from Belmont.
“The difference was, the playmaker didn’t go behind the back trying to split two people and turn the ball over to lose the game, that’s the biggest difference,” Paige said. “I’ll never forget that play in the Belmont game.”
Looks like he’s more than made up for it.