DuPree column: Paige leads UNC turnaround against Wolfpack
Statistically speaking, it could be said that point guards Marcus Paige of North Carolina and Lorenzo Brown of N.C. State played to a stalemate Saturday at the Smith Center.
Paige had 14 points and eight assists, while Brown put up 12 points and dished a dozen assists.
But a fair assessment would be that Paige, UNC's freshman playmaker, won the battle with big plays in the second half that helped resurrect the Tar Heels for a 76-65 victory.
In the first meeting, Brown scored 20 points and had 11 assists in leading the Wolfpack to a 91-83 win after leading by as many as 28 points. Paige had seven points, four assists and three turnovers in his first game of the rivalry.
"For me, individually, I wanted to respond to the way I played at N.C. State," Paige said. "I mean, Brown's a great player, but he really dominated the game over at N.C. State, and I wanted to make sure that I could do as much can to not let that happen again, try to contain him."
Paige's contributions went beyond defensive intensity, though. When UNC coach Roy Williams removed all five players with 13:25 left in the second half and N.C. State leading 43-42, Paige was among the substitutes.
With the Tar Heels nearing the end of the shot clock, Paige buried a 3-pointer to give UNC a 45-43 lead at the 12:42 mark.
The Wolfpack regained the lead, but Paige had demonstrated that he could rise to the occasion.
Or so he thought.
With N.C. State leading 55-54, Paige found himself alone with the ball in front of the UNC bench. As in wide open, with no one closing in ... for what seemed like seconds.
Then came the moment that turned the game in the Tar Heels favor, as Paige elevated and hit nothing but net for a 57-55 advantage the UNC never relinquished.
"I thought a defender was going to come at me, and I kind of hesitated," Paige said, adding that he was looking to pass to a teammate in the corner. "Then when no one came, I had to shoot it.
"You just have to be able to step up and make big shots. If the defense is going to leave you open, they're basically challenging you to make a shot like that. To step up and knock it down for my teammates is big for me. ... Luckily, it went in and we go on a run after that."
UNC's 18-2 scoring advantage through the 3:37 mark gave the Heels a 70-57 lead and, more important, control of the game. Paige had a baseline drive and added a free throw when he was fouled by Scott Wood during that stretch and closed posted 10 points after pulling the trigger on the go-ahead 3-pointer.
"A month ago, I might not have taken that shot," Paige said. "Now that I'm comfortable, starting to play better, I have no problem rising up to take a shot that my teammates want me to take."
Junior Reggie Bullock, who led the Tar Heels with 22 points and 13 rebounds, made sure Paige got the message.
"Every time he passes it to me, he tells me, 'Don’t hesitate to shoot,'" Bullock said. "So when he was in transition and no one picked him up, I was like, 'Don’t ever hesitate if you’re going to tell me never hesitate.’
"He knocked it down, and his confidence was building from there. He got in the lane, finished one-handed and got some layups and made some great plays for his teammates."
Williams knows the value of confidence for a point guard.
"My little freshman is a tough little nut," Williams said. "He's getting better and better as we go along."
Paige admitted that he isn't quite sure what his coach means.
"I decided to be tough on the court," Paige said. "Toughness is just described as when a team goes on run, being able to respond, step up and make a big shot or not be scared to take a big shot, whether it goes in or not. Last game (against N.C. State), I had trouble containing Brown. This game, I was able to keep him out of the lane more and make it more difficult for him."
It's easy to credit P.J. Hairston's insertion into the starting rotation for the Tar Heels' recent improvement, but Paige said it goes beyond that.
Paige believes the Tar Heels (19-8, 9-5 ACC) are coming together at the right time.
"It's a lot different team," he said. "We've grown, trying to play harder, we've matured. We have mixed the lineup a little bit, but I think it's more of a mentality change, more confidence in each other ... that's helped us moreso than just a lineup change."
UNC dropped N.C. State (19-8, 8-6) down the conference ladder, breaking the tie for third place. With four regular-season games remaining, the Heels are in position for a first-round bye when the ACC Tournament begins March 14.
"We understand that we couldn't have the same type of effort that we had at N.C. State," he said. "None of us wanted that. It's a home game, we wanted to protect home court and it's big for the ACC standings. ...
"I think if we keep playing the way we are and keep growing as a team, I'm not sure you can put a ceiling on how we can do come March and April."
Bold words for a freshman? Maybe, but he earned the right with his performance Saturday.
You may contact Jimmy DuPree at email@example.com or 919-740-5627.
NORTH CAROLINA 76, N.C. STATE 65
Percentages: FG .443, FT .462. 3-Point Goals: 5-16, .313 (Wood 5-12, T. Lewis 0-1, Purvis 0-1, Brown 0-2). Team Rebounds: 4. Blocked Shots: 6 (Howell 3, Warren 2, Wood). Turnovers: 17 (Leslie 6, Brown 4, Warren 4, Purvis, Howell). Steals: 4 (Leslie 2, Purvis, Brown). Technical Fouls: None.
Percentages: FG .438, FT .688. 3-Point Goals: 9-21, .429 (Bullock 5-12, Paige 2-4, Hairston 2-4, McDonald 0-1). Team Rebounds: 2. Blocked Shots: 5 (Hubert 2, McAdoo, Johnson, Hairston). Turnovers: 10 (McAdoo 6, Tokoto, Strickland, Davis). Steals: 9 (Paige 3, Hairston 2, McAdoo 2, McDonald, Strickland). Technical Fouls: None.
A—21,750. Officials—Ray Natili, Doug Sirmons, Gary Maxwell.