CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina coach Roy Williams didn’t have to tell point guard Marcus Paige that he needed to play a whole lot better Saturday than the previous time the Tar Heels faced NC State.
And he did.
The freshman, who looked lost and performed like it when the Tar Heels got whipped by the Wolfpack last month in Raleigh, rallied his team with an inspired, confident, 14-point, eight-assist effort during UNC’s 76-65 victory at the Smith Center.
NC State coach Mark Gottfried called Paige’s shots down the stretch Saturday “timely.”
And they were. But not just for that game -- also for the future of a Tar Heels team that finally seems to be putting its pieces together cohesively after switching to a smaller lineup four games ago.
“It’s just confidence and experience -- he has those now," senior guard Dexter Strickland said. “For [Paige] to be able to step up and hit those shots now, that’s huge for us, and where we are as a team.”
Where they are now, at 19-8 overall and 9-5 in the ACC, is third place in the league standings -- a half-game ahead of Virginia (which plays Sunday) and a full game ahead of the Wolfpack (19-8, 8-6). That’s important because only the top four teams earn a first-day bye in the ACC tournament.
And where they are now is looking calmer and more capable, going 3-1 since 6-foot-5 wing P.J. Hairston was inserted into the starting lineup, in place of 6-9 forward Desmond Hubert. The switch has made the Tar Heels faster, put another scorer on the floor, and opened more lanes for both Paige and Strickland to get to the basket.
“I think we’re starting to click more a little bit," Paige said.
A big part of that click is Paige, who went 2-for-11 with four assists and three turnovers during the Tar Heels' 91-83 loss last month at NC State. During that game, the freshman got outclassed by Wolfpack point guard Lorenzo Brown, who pushed a strong transition game -- and pushed past Paige on a regular basis. And the Tar Heels, Paige said, "got a little bit embarrassed," falling behind by as many as 28 points.
“That was the first time I played against a really big-time player, and he got the best of me in that matchup," Paige said. “[But] I couldn’t let him have a big night this time, because he kind of makes their whole offense go. I just wanted to try to contain him and make things as difficult for him as I could. And it ended up working out.”
Brown, still not quite 100 percent after an ankle sprain that sidelined him for two games earlier this month, finished with 12 points and 12 assists Saturday. But this time around, Paige was the aggressor -- especially when it mattered most.
After NC State used a 13-2 run early in the second half to turn a 10-point deficit into a 43-42 lead, Williams used his pull-'em-all approach, and inserted Paige, Luke Davis, J.P. Tokoto, Jackson Simmons and Hubert to give his more-used players a few minutes to ponder their lack of focus. Paige hit a 3-pointer -- a key shot considering Wolfpack wing Scott Wood countered with back-to-back 3s to extend his team’s run to 19-5.
But it was a few minutes later, with State still leading 55-52, when Paige really made his presence felt.
During what would become an 18-2 breakaway, and with the regulars back on the floor, he buried a 3-pointer to give the Tar Heels a 57-55 lead. After two Leslie McDonald free throws and a Reggie Bullock 3, he drove past Wood for a three-point play. And after another Bullock 3-pointer, Paige buried two free throws to give his team a comfy 70-57 cushion with less than four minutes left.
“I just think you’ve got to be able to step up and make big shots in times like that," Paige said. “And if defenses are going to leave you open, they’re challenging you to make shots like that. So to step up and make shots like that, that was big for me.”
And his team.
Bullock, who finished with a game-high 22 points and a career-high-tying 13 rebounds, also was big for UNC. As was the fact that NC State star forward C.J. Leslie finished with as many turnovers as points (6), and that the Tar Heels scored 24 points off turnovers (the Wolfpack had 16 for the game).
But Paige’s obvious growth since the previous time he faced NC State on Jan. 26 pulled it all together. It kept the rival Wolfpack from sweeping the Tar Heels for the first time since 2002-03. And it propelled the Tar Heels to their third consecutive victory.
He needed to improve. He knew it. And he did.
“My freshman is a tough little nut," Williams said. “And he’s getting better and better.”