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Adam Gold

The moment Carolina lost control

Posted March 23
Updated March 24

Momentum from game to game is a myth. What we most often see within a season or in a playoff series is a team's growing confidence or adjustments in personnel and/or strategy not yet being effectively countered. But momentum? After a three meals, a minimum of a night's rest and often a flight across a time zone? I think not.

Within a game, however, momentum is very real. And, when you have it on your side, it's important to avoid the mistakes that will allow "Uncle Mo" to reconsider his allegiance. With 4:24 to play in North Carolina's eventual loss to Iowa State on Sunday, Kennedy Meeks converted a pass from J.P. Tokoto into a lay-up and a 76-68 lead. It was the continuation of a 20-8 run by the Tar Heels that saw them flip a four-point deficit into the momentum that appeared to be carrying them to Madison Square Garden and a meeting with Connecticut in the Sweet Sixteen.

On the other end of the floor, Meeks continued his outstanding night with a steal, giving the Heels the ball and an eight-point lead with just under four minutes left. It was then that UNC would commit the critical error of the game.

Marcus Paige, who for the better part of five months had been one of the best players in the league, if not the nation, attempted an ill-advised three-pointer – with about 30 seconds left on the shot clock – and the miss, followed by a long-range bucket from Cyclones forward Naz Long gave Iowa State belief that they were still in the game.

In certain situations, a good possession, even if it doesn't result in points, is all that you really want. With under four minutes left, an eight-point lead in your back pocket and the momentum of a second half being played exactly the way Roy Williams would have dreamed, a mistake-free finish was all that was necessary to carry UNC to New York City. That uncharacteristic mistake by Paige left the door cracked, and ISU kicked it down.

The Cyclones scored eight straight points, and the lead that took Carolina some six minutes to construct crumbled in just over 100 seconds. Back-to-back three pointers plus a driving lay-up pulled Iowa State even and left momentum in the center circle – up for grabs like a jump ball.

Yes, the Tar Heels would still pull ahead – twice they led by three points, the last coming with 55 seconds to play thanks to a James Michael McAdoo short jumper in the lane. However, the game was now a toss-up, and would be decided by one shot one way or another, and when you consider that the Cyclones scored on seven consecutive possessions to close out the game, well, you know what that means.

Words don't really do justice to Paige's sophomore season. He was the unexpected superstar for Roy Williams' team. As fifth-year senior Leslie McDonald and departed junior P.J. Hairston struggled with their eligibility issues in November and into December, it was Paige who took command of the team and established himself as the unquestioned leader. He led the team in scoring, assists and game-changing plays. He was, along with N.C. State's T.J. Warren, the most irreplaceable player in the ACC. Among Paige's best qualities, as important as his three-point accuracy, defensive prowess and feel for the game, was his incredibly high basketball I.Q. He just didn't make mental mistakes.

That's what made that three-point attempt, not exactly an uncontested look, so strange to see. We can talk about the turnover that led to Iowa State's go-ahead basket, a DeAndre Kane breakaway lay-up, with 27 seconds remaining. We can talk about Paige and his teammates being unaware of Kane's presence – alone – at the other end of the court. And, we can talk about a little bit of a brain freeze that saw the Tar Heels fail to call timeout before there was no time on the clock to stop – though, to be fair, it did appear that Williams was trying to get the attention of referee Tony Greene to no avail.

Too often, it's what happens last that we remember the most. But, in my opinion, the first major error was that quick-trigger, three pointer with four minutes to play that left the door open for the transfer of momentum and once that switch was made it was anyone's game.

Uncle Mo has no loyalty. He's a front runner.

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  • GunnyGoesBaaaarf Mar 24, 6:44 a.m.

    Good piece, Adam. You're right about remembering what happens last the most, and unfortunately, the way the Heels let that lead slip away is a tough way to end a season. I'll try to remember this season as one that had the Heels making the Tourney, winning a game, and coming within a whisker of making it to the Sweet 16 after a 1-4 start in the ACC. I'll try, but that loss to Iowa State is a bitter pill.

  • ronhesmer Mar 24, 7:39 a.m.

    "What we most often see within a season, or in a playoff series is more often confidence or a team's adjustments in personnel and/or strategy not yet being effectively countered." Meander much?

  • kato_karma3.5 Mar 24, 11:56 a.m.

    Don't forget Meek's missed put-back attempt. He coulda/shoulda, gathered himself, and gone back up -- or passed the ball back out so the offense could re-set.

  • odell Mar 24, 12:48 p.m.

    Paige's response - "I'd take that shot a thousand times again". Good enough for me over your opinion.

  • flipyas Mar 24, 1:23 p.m.

    Maybe not the best shooting decision ever but it's not a turning point if Carolina plays even a reasonable semblance of defense at the end. Seemed like every time I looked up, there was a wide open 3 point shooter or an ISU player behind the entire Carolina defense.

  • LuvsThePack Mar 24, 2:24 p.m.

    WRAL has plenty from which to choose, but this may be one of the dumbest articles yet.

    No three point attempt from Paige is ill-advised. An eight point lead with four minutes remaining is not even close to guaranteed. Paige was open. He took the shot. He missed. Period. If he had made it, they Holes would have been a great big step closer to sealing the deal. So he missed it. Deal. Players miss occasionally. It's only a bad shot if he was out of position and just heaved up a prayer for no reason. He knew what he was doing, and he did it.

    And it most decidedly was NOT a mistake.

    You need to re-write this article and make it right. This was ridiculous.

  • etrnluth Mar 24, 2:42 p.m.

    When Paige took that 3-pointer and missed, I too got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach that it was a mistake. I would have much rather seen him take it to the hoop with a layup, with at least an opportunity to get fouled. To make matters worse, our defense was extremely poor near the end. It truly was our game to lose, and we did just that.

  • GunnyGoesBaaaarf Mar 25, 7:18 a.m.

    When Paige took that 3-pointer and missed, I too got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach that... View More

    — Posted by etrnluth

    I agree. While Paige is a very accurate 3-point shooter, there was still 30 ticks left of the clock, so he did have time to drive to the basket, with possibly a better chance for the "old-fashioned" three-point play.

    The loss isn't entirely on Paige's miss; like you said, the lack of defense in the waning minutes played a huge part as well.

    To come so close to winning the game is a bitter way to end a season.

  • scousler Mar 26, 1:02 a.m.

    Not often I agree completely with Adam, but he's right, a more seasoned player would have worked for a better shot than the one Paige attempted.

    When playing a very good team like Iowa State, every possession is crucial. Paige may have thought he could salt the game away by making the 3 pointer, and with the lead thought it was worth a gamble. But you don't gamble in a tight match - go with what works. Working for an inside shot would have been a much more sure thing. It also would've prevented the fast break and dish out to an open 3 point gunslinger when Paige missed.

    The game turned on that mistake. I don't think Paige should in any way bear the responsibility for the loss, just hope he learns from that miscue and next time is more patient. Making the right decisions at clutch time is what separates the good from the great players of the game. I'm glad he's taking another year at Carolina to hone those skills some more.

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