Luke DeCock: As Final Four returns to Houston, UNC remembers the greatest shot ever forgotten

Tribune Content Agency

HOUSTON — The Final Four has come back around, seven years later, but there’s no marker on the floor in Houston to mark the spot where Kris Jenkins launched the shot that broke a million Tar Heel hearts, not that the NCAA has a habit of indulging in that kind of sentimentality.

It’s impossible to be here, though, without thinking about the drama of 2016, when Villanova beat North Carolina for the title on Jenkins’ buzzer-beater. And for UNC, anyway, that means thinking about just how close the Tar Heels came on an equally dramatic heave just before it. Jenkins’ shot will be replayed forever. Outside of Chapel Hill, anyway, Marcus Paige’s off-balance, double-clutch 3-pointer that preceded it has already been forgotten.

It might be the greatest shot no one remembers.

“I even told Michael Jordan, ‘If we’d gotten that game to overtime and won it, your shot against Georgetown would have been the second-most famous shot in UNC history,” former North Carolina coach Roy Williams said this week.

Jordan was there watching when Paige’s clutch, leaning, long-range attempt in front of the UNC bench tied the score at 74 with 4.7 seconds to go, completing a late double-digit comeback. He took a pass from Joel Berry, sidestepped a diving Daniel Ochefu and launched a shot around and over a lunging Ryan Arcidiacano that left him landing awkwardly on one leg just before the ball somehow rifled through the hoop.

“Impossible!” CBS’ Jim Nantz yelled over the howls of his broadcast partners, Grant Hill and Bill Raftery. “How did he do that?”

There are moments, during the tournament, that are immediately stamped with greatness. The “One Shining Moment” editors flag them for the mix without thinking about it. Announcers lose their composure and yell into the microphone. Paige’s shot was one of them. It sent seat cushions flying into the air and left fans gasping for it.

Villanova’s subsequent timeout gave time and space for the impact to sink in. Down 10 late, North Carolina had surely roared back to force overtime, and if the Tar Heels were to go on to win, that unlikely answered prayer would become the signature moment of their title run.

A mere 4.7 seconds later, it was consigned to history like the UNC championship hats and shirts NCAA staffers quickly boxed up and spirited away for shipment overseas before the confetti hit the floor.

Nantz: “They’re going to go the length of the court with Arcidiacano. Three seconds at midcourt…”

Hill interjects, prophetically: “Jenkins!”

Nantz: “…gives it to Jenkins…for the championship…Villanova! Phenomenal! The national champions! With Jenkins hitting the winner at the buzzer!”

So Jenkins’ shot would be the one that was replayed forever, along with Jay Wright’s cooly emotionless “bang.” History was made by someone, but it wasn’t Paige. What would have become the most enduring moment of that tournament was wiped from collective memory by a shot that became one of the most enduring moments of any tournament, just as cleanly as Ochefu had wiped the key spot on the floor during the timeout.

And Paige, as much as anyone, knew it instantly.

“It’s going to be impossible not to see that shot,” Paige said back in 2016. “It’s one of the great shots in NCAA history, a buzzer-beater in a championship game. I’m going to see it for the rest of my life and it’s going to hurt every time.”

Williams, in the aftermath, was standing outside the UNC locker room trying to figure out what to tell his team. For one of the very few times in his career, he was at a loss for words. Jordan came up to console him, and Williams asked him to speak to the team first. By the time he went inside, he had decided to tell the team to let the hurt fuel its offseason, a thought that would eventually become a famous group text titled “Redemption.”

Along the way, 51 weeks later, a similar turn of events reverberated back in North Carolina’s direction. Luke Maye’s buzzer-beater eliminated Kentucky, with Jenkins — the adoptive brother of UNC guard Nate Britt — watching from the UNC family section in Memphis, no less.

Maye’s shot became one of the iconic moments of that title run and that tournament, not the first nor the last for a member of the Maye family at North Carolina. It sent the Tar Heels on their way back to the Final Four and to a national title of their own, all of which went a long way toward healing the wounds of 2016.

By then, Paige was playing in the G League, watching like everyone else. Gone, but unlike the shot he made, not forgotten. At UNC’s basketball banquet after the season, they played a video of Williams telling the players before the first practice of the year that they were good enough to play on Monday night again and good enough to win it.

“I’d forgotten all about it by then,” Williams said. “I turned to Wanda and said, ‘It still doesn’t help Marcus Paige.’”