Paige, McAdoo set tone for Heels

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo can’t remember who said it first, but both realized it needed to be said.

North Carolina’s co-captains sat on the plane ride back from their loss at Syracuse last week that dropped the Tar Heels to 0-3 in the ACC knowing they needed to do something.

“I’m not going to say our backs were against the wall or that we were panicking, but something had to change,” McAdoo said. “We definitely just tried to adapt and just really do what we’re capable of doing and have done in the past.”

The Tar Heels did have their backs to the wall. Never in program history had they started off 0-4 in conference play.

Paige and McAdoo decided to do as captains do, gathering the rest of the team for a players-only talk. Freshman Kennedy Meeks said the meeting was like the team took a collective “look in the mirror.”

“They asked us why are we here? Who we are playing for? How important is it to us?” Meeks said.

It was evident in UNC’s 82-71 win over Boston College on Saturday that the message got through. Carolina played with more energy and more urgency than it had since league play began.

Paige and McAdoo figured the best way to set an example was by their actions. And they set the tone from the start, scoring 25 of Carolina’s 36 points in the first half, marking their highest total in a half in ACC play. That is, until the Heels topped that with 46 second-half points.

“I was able to start off quick today, and I think that helps me get the rest of my teammates involved,” McAdoo said. “It just takes the pressure off everyone as a whole and then we’re out there clicking.”

McAdoo, who finished with 17 points, has reached double figures in 10 straight games. Paige finished with a game-high 21 points, which was an especially refreshing sight for the Heels after he has struggled in league play.

It was the most combined points for the duo since also accounting for a combined 38 points against UNC Wilmington.

When the co-captains play as well as they did Saturday, Carolina will look like the team that registered arguably the best three nonconference wins of any team nationally.

“As the leaders of this team, when we set the tone, that gets contagious,” Paige said. “So, we need to keep asserting ourselves early trying to make a stamp on the game so everything will come easy for our teammates, as well.”

When the Heels got off to a sluggish start in ACC play last season, they also held a players-only meeting. Sophomore J.P. Tokoto, who had 14 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds, said the difference this season is the players actually listened to Paige and McAdoo’s plea. Tokoto said last season’s talk “went in one ear and out the other” because players were more likely to brush off advice when it came from a teammate.

“We don’t have egos,” Tokoto said. “Our team meeting, I feel like it helped because of the individuals we have on the team this year. Guys are willing to listen, willing to make changes. We had the results today.”

UNC coach Roy Williams did his part to shake things up after a week off between games. Jackson Simmons made his first career start at center, and Leslie McDonald made just his second career start -- his first this season.

“You lost three in a row, you had to try to do something,” Williams said.

Paige and McAdoo had the same sentiment, adding that players can hear what needs to change from the coaching staff only so much. At some point, it needed to come from within the locker room.

“We just chatted, ‘Hey, we need to get the guys together and make sure we’re all on the same page,’” Paige said. “It’s not just going to happen on game day. We’ve got to commit to playing hard and making that a habit rather than once every four or five games.”

The win was more a reprieve than a cure-all. On Monday, the Heels head to Virginia, which has won four of its past five games.

If Paige and McAdoo come to play, the Heels will at least have a chance to win.

“It’s always good that when we have Kennedy step up and play well, and Leslie hit shots,” McAdoo said. “We know night in and night out we’re [Paige and McAdoo] going to be called on to be the leaders of this team.”