Marcus Paige gives North Carolina the motor it needs

PHILADELPHIA -- It is probably a touch of an exaggeration to say that the game between North Carolina and Indiana was over after the first bucket.

But only a touch.

When Marcus Paige drained a 3-pointer just 35 seconds into the Tar Heels' regional semifinal against the Hoosiers on Friday night, the tenor of this game was all but decided because, as loaded and talented as the Tar Heels are, Paige remains their motor.

And the motor was revving against Indiana. Paige had four 3-pointers before the first media timeout, a season-high seven 3s in the game and 20 points -- his most since Feb. 6 -- while quickly turning what was supposed to be a battle of the blue bloods into a 101-86 North Carolina bloodbath.

The Tar Heels will reunite with Notre Dame in the regional final. A little more than two weeks ago, North Carolina blew the doors off the Irish, 78-47, in the ACC tournament semifinals.

North Carolina didn’t exactly suffer while Paige went through a case of the yips at times this season, rolling to a 25-6 record, but the Tar Heels didn’t necessarily look like the team favored to win the national championship, either.

Against Indiana, the Heels looked like the team favored to win the national crown, assaulting the Hoosiers from every possible position and angle. Five players finished in double figures. Carolina scored 34 points in the paint, 21 points off turnovers and 16 second-chance points, and it drained 11 3-pointers and dished out 20 assists on 32 made buckets. (Paige, by the way, had six of the assists.)

So this was by no means "The Marcus Paige Show." If anything, this game showcased the ridiculous number of ways North Carolina can beat a team. But Paige was the opening act that warmed up the Heels.

His shot-making -- or, during his regular-season skid, his shot-missing -- is as much about leadership and presence as it is points. He was meant to be the leader of this team, and while he did his best to play smart even when he wasn’t scoring, there’s no denying that the Heels missed the energy and verve his offense gave them.

When those first four treys dropped through the net on Friday, it was as if the Heels collectively relaxed. They played with freedom -- some of it, no doubt thanks to the, um, freedom Indiana’s porous defense permitted -- and confidence, draining a ridiculous 65 percent of their shots in the first half.

Paige officially cured himself of his shooting ills two weeks ago, during the ACC tournament, but he has been steady if not spectacular since then. He was 0-for-7 from the arc against Virginia in the league title game and just 7-of-21 overall in the Heels' early NCAA tournament games.

North Carolina eased into the Sweet 16 because the Heels are ridiculously better than Florida Gulf Coast and Providence.

But we are in the meat of the tourney now, when nothing is easy and when teams not only need to play well, they need to play with confidence.

When Marcus Paige plays like this version of Marcus Paige, that’s exactly what North Carolina is -- confident and very, very dangerous.