Win over Louisville could be springboard for Tar Heels

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The yellow-jacketed security guards promptly bounced back the trickle of students who tried to initiate a court storming following No. 18 North Carolina's come-from-behind victory over No. 5 Louisville 72-71.

It won't be the last time the students have a chance to celebrate. It was a court-rushing, emotional kind of win that could catapult the Tar Heels back into the stratosphere of lofty expectations they had at the season's start.

"This was a big one," said guard Marcus Paige, who had 10 points, including the game-winning floater with nine seconds left. "It was a big win for us. I can't deny that or play that off. We needed this one."

It was the first time this season Carolina looked like the team that was ranked sixth in the preseason.

Paige was voted the ACC's preseason player of the year. Like the team, Paige hasn't lived up to those expectations, but he proved he can live up to the moment.

He's playing with plantar fasciitis in his right foot, which caused him to miss some practice this week. He rolled his ankle in the second half, needing a quick trip to the locker room to have it re-taped. But even while struggling through a poor shooting performance (4-for-12), there was no doubt he'd again have the final shot, as he did against Notre Dame on Monday.

On Monday, Paige's desperation 3-point shot against the Fighting Irish missed at the buzzer while he was triple-teamed. Saturday's game was different for more reasons than just Paige making the final shot, though.

"We didn't necessarily look at it like we needed it," freshman forward Justin Jackson said. "We wanted it really bad, though. That was something different."

The Tar Heels haven't played with a lot of passion this season. Remember that loss to Butler? The Bulldogs had 29 offensive rebounds and outrebounded Carolina by 17. No one would classify them as a rebounding juggernaut, either, as their current rebound margin is plus-1.3.

Outings such as that led to the Heels having their toughness questioned. The players heard that criticism. They finally got tired of it. It's exactly why the win over Louisville could mean something more.

North Carolina showed mettle when it could have folded. The Tar Heels faced a 13-point deficit and had no answers for Louisville guards Terry Rozier and Chris Jones, who combined for 44 points. And to top it off, Paige -- their leader and top scorer -- was hurting.

"For the first time this season, we kind of dug in and won a tough game," Jackson said.

It's a much-needed confidence boost for a team that has already lost twice at home in scenarios that came down to a final possession. The Tar Heels had poor execution in their 60-55 loss to Iowa last month, and that final shot Paige took against Notre Dame was actually a play designed for Brice Johnson.

Junior forward J.P. Tokoto said the team hadn't lost confidence from those close losses, but the Heels were waiting to prove they could finally close out and win a tight game.

"You could kind of say, point proven, that we are that kind of team," Tokoto said. "Down under 10 minutes, double-digit points -- we can come back no matter what it is."

Carolina's previous best wins this season looked good at the time but have all crumbled. UCLA and Florida were ranked teams when the Heels beat them, but neither are seeing any part of the top 25 now. Ohio State will likely get bounced, too, after losing to Indiana.

This win will have staying power.

"This was the type of win we needed," Paige said. "We had a great chance on Monday night despite not playing very well to beat a team ranked ahead of us. We let that slip away. If you want to be a good seed in the [NCAA] tournament, want to be successful in March, you can't let a lot of those slip away."

They didn't let this moment slip, and it could help re-establish the Heels among the elite.