CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina was a little hyped to play Louisville on Saturday. The No. 18 Tar Heels, coming off a one-point loss to Notre Dame on Monday, got a scoop shot from junior Marcus Paige with 8.5 seconds left to steal a 72-71 win at the Smith Center over No. 5 Louisville.
In a goosebumps-inducing gesture, the video board played an old clip of Stuart Scott on the floor before a UNC game pumping up the crowd. That, along with the mix of EDM and C-Murder before the game, was enough to shake the Dean Dome and probably rattle some bluehairs. But might as well pull out all the stops to give Louisville the proper Triangle welcome.
“You’ve heard me say it a thousand times,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “Everything looks better when the ball goes in the basket. In fact, I think probably Marcus’ layup that he made tonight was more difficult than the one he missed the other night. We were very fortunate.”
Paige, who had a chance to win the game against the Fighting Irish but came up empty, got redemption against the Cardinals despite injuring his foot midway through the second half.
The Tar Heels guard came out of the game with 10:30 to play and went into the locker room. As he was getting taped up and receiving treatment, Louisville stretched its lead to 13 after a Wayne Blackshear three-pointer with 8:43 remaining.
“I wasn’t back there long but it’s hard when you can’t see what’s going on,” Paige said. “The only thing going through my mind was that we had plenty of time.”
The win for the Tar Heels was a much-needed one for a team that still hasn’t had its most complete performance yet this season. North Carolina still too often plays like a puppy who just figured out it can run and jump and do cool tricks. And yet there’s still the potential for the team to get up to speed and flop forward, tumbling over the feet it still needs to grow into.
Every once in a while the Heels put it all together and more than deserve a treat, but they haven’t quite earned Roy Williams’ – or anyone else’s – trust at this point in the season. There’s still almost the entirety of conference play left, so that growth could come any time over the next two months.
“That’s the best thing about this, honestly,” freshman forward Theo Pinson said. “We came out with the win and we didn’t even play as good as we should have. That just shows our potential and where we need to be.”
The second half included both the good and the bad. Missed shots and turnovers allowed Louisville to build its lead in the first place, and North Carolina spent a tremendous amount of energy trying to get back in it.
“To come back from 13 points [down] that’s huge for us,” junior forward J.P. Tokoto said. “Now that we know we can do that, we don’t necessarily want to be in that position anymore, but we know we can bounce back and be okay.”
Paige’s three-pointer with 6:19 to play after he returned from the locker room ignited the crowd, and the Tar Heels had a bunch of chances to tie or take the lead afterward. J.P. Tokoto brought UNC to within one with just over two minutes to play, and Brice Johnson got a shot in the paint off a Paige pass to give UNC a 70-69 lead, its first since the score was 38-36 just a minute and 15 seconds after halftime.
Terry Rozier (25 points, five rebounds, five assists) hit a huge shot – one of his many throughout the game – to put Louisville back on top, but Paige’s game-winner was the difference.
“I said it jokingly to my teammates that I was back,” Paige said. “I said ‘I’m back, guys.’ I haven’t been playing the way I’m capable of playing. You guys know that. It’s pretty well documented at this point. I need to play better.”
The Legend of Second Half Marcus Paige may not be as much of a thing as it has been in years past, but he played the old standards at the best possible time. Paige admitted he’s been hearing the criticism on social media and elsewhere, and this game could be just what he and the Tar Heels needed. At the very least, it’ll give people something else to talk about for a few days.