Marcus Paige the pulse of the Heels

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Davidson broke out a box-and-one defense against North Carolina’s leading scorer, Marcus Paige.

As did Texas.

As did UAB.

And the saga likely will continue when the Tar Heels take the floor heading into the new year. Davidson coach Bob McKillop was just the latest to acknowledge that no player is more crucial to Carolina than Paige.

Stop or slow him and the results will look like Saturday’s, a game in which Davidson pushed it to overtime before UNC prevailed 97-85.

When the Wildcats limited Paige’s scoring opportunities, they never trailed by more than two possessions in the second half.

“I have to be doing something to help the team offensively,” Paige said. “I can’t be a non-factor like I was in the first half. But at the same time we have guys that as their confidence keeps growing, on any given night they can step up.”

J.P. Tokoto had a career-high 22 points to carry the offensive load for Carolina. But despite his best efforts, Davidson had the ball with a chance to win on the final shot at the end of regulation.

Once Paige got into an offensive rhythm, which really wasn’t until the five-minute overtime, the Tar Heels ran away with the game. Paige scored 11 of Carolina’s 18 points in the extra period. He scored all of his 17 points in the final 13 minutes, 17 seconds.

“We know that based off what he’s done that he’s our best player as far as scoring,” freshman guard Nate Britt said. “Everything that he does, we kind of feed off that and that kind of propels the team the rest of the game.”

Even with the Heels’ roster now set with the addition of Leslie McDonald and the final verdict on P.J. Hairston’s status, nothing has changed for their fortunes.

That the Wildcats (4-8) forced overtime in a game in which they were 18-point underdogs wasn’t so much another sign of the Tar Heels’ mercurial ways as it was indicative of the job Davidson did on Paige.

“[Assistant coach] Jim Fox put together a defensive game plan that was superb,” McKillop said.

It helped Davidson that UNC center Brice Johnson, who made his first start of the season with Joel James out with a sprained medical collateral ligament, was hampered by foul trouble. Johnson fouled out with four minutes left after scoring just two points -- well below his 12.3 average.

Paige does seem like he’s undergoing another period of adjustment. He had to grow into his role as the team’s leading scorer when he played primarily at shooting guard during the nine games McDonald and Hairston were suspended.

With McDonald in the lineup, he played a majority of time back at point guard against Davidson. It wasn’t until McDonald fouled out with 1:42 left in regulation that Paige went back to shooting guard and got more aggressive offensively.

Davidson held Paige scoreless until 8:17 remained in regulation, when he made a layup.

“Rather than have one guy chasing me through screens, they would switch off at any screen,” Paige said. “If a guy was box-and-one on me and I ran off a screen, the next guy would just pick me up so it was harder to get open.”

Tokoto said the Heels have to avoid relying on Paige too much. He said opportunities for other players open up when an opponent is so focused on stopping the sophomore.

“He’s been our go-to guy,” Tokoto said. “… But he’s not LeBron. We can’t look at him like, ‘We need offense, what are you going to do?’”

Paige wouldn’t function well if that were the case anyway. He’s one of the most reluctant potential superstar players in college basketball. He’s not asking for the spotlight, but with it shining on him, he knows he must perform.

“I’m not really surprised anymore,” Paige said. “At the beginning I was like, ‘Wow, why are teams box-and-one on me? Why are teams paying so much attention to me?’ Now it’s starting to be something that I’m expecting and we’re working on game planning against so we won’t be surprised by it.”