RALEIGH, N.C. -- After his game-winning layup against Louisville on Saturday, Marcus Paige said he jokingly told teammates “I’m back.” In the ACC teleconference on Monday, Roy Williams told reporters “One play didn’t destroy my confidence in him [against Notre Dame] and one play, I don’t think, is going to turn me 180 degrees in the other direction right now” on Paige, referencing the junior continuing to battle plantar fasciitis in his right foot.
If Williams isn’t ready to turn 180 degrees, maybe he’s willing to go 45 or so after Paige had arguably his best game of the season in No. 15 North Carolina’s 81-79 win over NC State on Wednesday.
Paige delivered in a big way against the Wolfpack, finishing with 23 points, nine assists (to no turnovers) and four steals to move the Tar Heels to 3-1 in conference play.
“I think it’s pretty obvious that he’s feeling it right now,” Tar Heels guard Nate Britt said. “We just want to keep riding him and hopefully he’ll carry it throughout the rest of conference play.”
If North Carolina is going to finish near the top of the ACC, it needs Paige to be back -- or as close to back as the lingering injury will allow him. The shooting effort Wednesday was a great sign. In North Carolina’s previous 10 games, Paige shot just 35.6 percent. Against the Wolfpack, the junior got his 23 points on just nine field goal attempts, hitting all five of his three-pointers and all six of his free throws.
With North Carolina’s size and depth in the post, the team doesn’t need Paige to do it all off the dribble or create for himself late in games like he's had to in the past. But The Tar Heels do need Paige to facilitate the offense and create a capable inside-out game to keep defenses from keying on the paint.
The Tar Heels ranked 262nd in the country in three-point shooting (31 percent) and fell in the bottom 10 in all of college basketball in three-pointers attempted entering Wednesday. As league play goes on, teams (cough Virginiaand Syracusecough) are going to dare North Carolina to shoot over the top. Williams surely would like it if his perimeter scorers, especially Paige, could come through.
Defensively, J.P. Tokoto did an admirable job of defending NC State’s Trevor Lacey, holding the dynamic scorer to 4-of-13 shooting (and just 1-of-7 in the first half). But with the increased attention on Lacey, running mate Ralston Turner (20 points, four assists) went to work. Turner hit two big shots on back-to-back possessions, one a four-point play, to get NC State back within five points with under three minutes to play, and he hit another one from deep to cut it to 74-71 about a minute later.
When one of Lacey or Turner gets hot, NC State is typically okay. If both are playing well, then the Wolfpack can hang with (or beat) just about anyone in the country, as evidenced by their impressive 87-75 win over then-No. 2 Duke on Sunday.
Tokoto’s defensive effort on Wednesday was phenomenal and is the sort of thing that can get the Tar Heels going in a hurry. It’s no secret that North Carolina’s length can give other teams fits, but when the team can push the tempo and get quick buckets on the other end, it’s a positive feedback loop. That allows the Tar Heels to set up their defense, which in turn can lead to even more steals and fast break points. It’s science, or something.
“It’s fun when your hard work on the defensive end translates to easy baskets and dunks and stuff,” Paige said. “It does motivate you to play harder defense.”
This is the Tar Heels' second straight win by two points or less and the third straight game they’ve played that’s been decided by one possession.
These close games aren’t ideal, as North Carolina would obviously rather win comfortably, but Paige and the Heels feel as though they’re learning from these experiences and will be a more dangerous team as a result.
“There’s going to be situations like that down the road where the stakes are higher where we’re going to need to respond,” Paige said. “We’re going to need to claw back, get a couple steals, make something happen like we did against Louisville. But we’re going to need to withstand a team’s best punch, like NC State threw.
"When they hit that three in the corner, got fouled, scored another basket and got a turnover, that’s something that’s going to help us, learning how to fight through that.”
If North Carolina hasn’t hit its stride yet, it’s dangerous to think what’ll happen when it does. And if history is any indication, Marcus Paige will be right in the middle of it, whether he’s truly back or not.