As all adults come to learn, childhood fantasy and real life don't often mesh as one. Sometimes, the buzzer beater shot you practice for hours on your driveway falls, and it's all for naught anyway. Marcus Paige, formerly of the University of North Carolina, knows this better than anyone.
"I still have random moments where I'll be sitting there, like playing video games, and think, 'Man, I hit that shot and we still lost the title game on a buzzer beater," he said.
As has been noted just about everywhere, 2016 was a phenomenal year in sports. Arguably, the single best moment was when Villanova's Kris Jenkins hit as pure a three as has ever been launched to win the NCAA title game, inarguably the greatest college basketball game ever played.
(N.C. State winning in 1983 was amazing, but the forever highlight is Jimmy Valvano running around for a hug after the final whistle.)
Not to take anything away from Jenkins, whose jumper will be replayed in "One Shining Moment" for time immortal, but it's a shot he's taken, and made, a thousand times before. It was a wide-open look. It's what Jenkins is unpaid to do.
The shot before it however…Well it was damn near the best the Big Dance ever saw.
"It's definitely not a shot I've ever practiced," Paige said. "But in that moment, time just slowed down."
A quick refresher for those who've had other things on their mind since the seismic hoop events of April 4. Coming into the game, North Carolina was a No. 1-seed, Villanova a No. 2, and both teams had fairly easy runs to the title games. Even the Final Four games (against Syracuse and Oklahoma, respectively) were blowouts. But on that Monday night in Houston, fans were treated to a classic.
The first half was crisp and close with the teams trading five-point leads. The Tar Heels—an awful shooting team all year—broke out of their three-point slump to take a 39-34 lead at the break.
Paige, who fractured his hand and missed six early games, was especially woeful from behind the arc last year, finishing the regular season with a career low 32.4 percent. However, the senior picked it up in the ACC Tournament, shooting 41.3 percent heading into the title game.
"I struggled down the stretch in ACC play, played pretty poorly in the two Duke games, but I found my groove in the postseason," he said. "I started to play more free and realizing that this is the end, stopped thinking about my shot."
Paige dazzled in the Sweet Sixteen rout over Indiana, hitting his first four 3s in the first five minutes. As Hoosier coach Tom Crean said after the game, "Marcus was hitting video game shots. I mean, seriously."
Back in the title bout, North Carolina went down 10 late in the game, but the Tar Heels hot shooting (for the game 11-for-17, 65 percent, from three) brought them storming back. They were down three with the ball, thirteen seconds left, clock ticking, and with seven seconds left…
Paige made the shot of his life.
"That was the spot where I was supposed to get the ball to pass it in, take my guy away, and come back off a screen, but Villanova switched. Honestly, if [Daniel] Ochefu hadn't gone for the steal, I probably couldn't have gotten a shot off. He's seven-feet and I probably wouldn't have had enough daylight to get a clean look at the rim. Once I rose up, I saw Brice [Johnson] under the basket for a flash, but I knew we only had six seconds left. [Ryan] Arcidiacono ran by me and I had to regather myself—"
This is all in mid-air remind you.
"—Once I got my hand back under the ball, I let it fly. And got one to go."
Villanova called time out.
"Automatically, the first thing that went through my mind is we've got five more minutes. I'm screaming at the guys in the huddle, 'One Stop! One Stop!' We have all the momentum, we're going to overtime, going to smack Villanova around and win the national championship. I'm fully confident an extra five would've gone Carolina's way."
A mere 4.7 seconds later, his incredible off-balance magic became the bridesmaid of NCAA lore. For Paige, it didn't even take that long.
"When Jenkins let go of the ball, I knew it was over. He was in rhythm. It was going in, but it's one of those things where it feels like the basketball is in the air forever. Like forever. Jenkins released it, shot looked so good, I'm just trying to will the ball to not go into the basket…"
The trey heard round the world. Posted for one and all. Inescapable.
"I've seen it a million times. On Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, you can't avoid the shot that I hit and the game-winning shot. Nantz on the call, 'For the championship!' I see it over-and-over because I'm friends with Kris, Ryan, and Daniel and they repost it all the time. I should probably unfollow them soon."
Catching a repeated Vine is not the same as closely breaking down every aspect of what led to the walkoff jumper. Paige didn't sit and rewatch the game until after the NBA draft where he was taken in the second round by the Utah Jazz (via a trade with the Brooklyn Nets.) At home, alone in his basement, Paige's mind was blown like all who watched his double-clutch sorcery live.
"I'd seen my shot in real time a lot, but not when they slowed it down and did the slo-mo from different angles. In the game, I didn't feel myself clutch as much as it showed on the tape. I thought I made a slight adjustment, I didn't realize my legs were all sprawled out, limbs going everywhere, I completely reset the ball on my shoulder. Wow, I don't think I could ever do that again… It was probably too soon to watch the game because I still thought we were going to win when it went in."
The Tar Heels had a defensive lapse, obviously someone blew an assignment to leave Jenkins unguarded, but Paige isn't hung up on what went wrong. He knows the shot and The Shot will be a staple on "Best-of-2016" recaps, next year's March Madness, every one after that, and the inevitable 30 For 30 in 2026. But what if we told you that he's not the least bit bitter, because his Tar Heel career was a long hard journey that just came up 25-feet short?
"I had the opportunity to leave after my sophomore year when I was an All-American, but I wanted to win some more at Carolina. For three years, we struggled compared to traditional Tar Heel teams, but in my senior year, the group of guys bonded. We had a fantastic run to the Final Four, got some redemption."
Today, Paige is averaging 11.7 points for the Salt Lake City Stars, just another hungry guy in the D-League trying to get to the NBA. It's the grind of a professional basketball life in the shadows, a far cry from a crowd of 70,000, but it's the next step. Whatever becomes Paige's pro career, he'll always have the miraculous Inspector Gadget three. Sure, it will always be the prelude to the best of all-time, but it will also always be the prelude to the best of all-time.
"The Villanova loss is something that will always live with me, kind of drive me a little crazy, but I wouldn't change any of it."