Not for the first time this season, Marcus Paige seems to be taking it easy in the first half before exploding after intermission, this time dishing his full offensive arsenal at North Carolina State, including a game-winning layup with 0.9 seconds left on the clock, bringing North Carolina to 10 consecutive wins.
In a rivalry the Tar Heels have dominated in recent years, it took them quite a long time to get started. T.J. Warren, the favorite to win ACC player of the year (a discussion Paige should be in as well) was hard to stop with 36 points but down the stretch he simply didn’t get the kind of help a guy needs to bring his team to victory, not to mention into the tournament now that the Wolfpack have fallen to 7-8 in conference play.
Paige finished with 35 points on 11-of-21 shooting, including 7-of-12 from the field. It was that outside shooting that helped him draw three defenders out to the top of the key before driving into the paint and hitting the game winning shot before a desperate heave didn’t touch anything, leading to the 85-84 win for the Tar Heels.
It’s been quite the turnaround for the Tar Heels after their 1-4 start in conference play. They haven’t just won 10 in a row, but have also beaten a #5 Duke and a ranked Pitt team, finishing the season with a game in Blacksubrg, at home against Notre Dame and then hosting Duke for the regular season finale.
They’ve improved their shooting percentage from 40.1% to 47.8% through these 10 games, their outside shooting from 22.7% to 40% (the real key to their scorching offense) and Marcus Paige himself playing like the point guard North Carolina need him to be, averaging 18.9 points through this 10 game winning streak after only putting up 12.6 a night in the first five conference games.
Paige has been special when it comes to second half in the last month, turning up into another gear in the close games: Against Florida State, Pittsburgh, Duke (scoring 0 in the first half and 13 in the second) and now against North Carolina State, finishing the first half (after which the Tar Heels were behind 26-34) with only 4 points. He went 9-of-15 from the field and 7-of-10 from 3-point range after the break, scoring 31 points to end with a career high 35. It was the most points by a UNC player since Harrison Barnes scored 40 in the 2011 ACC tournament semifinals against Clemson. It also marked the first time a UNC player hit seven 3s since Will Graves did it in the 2010 NIT final against Dayton.
With this 10-game winning streak, North Carolina seem destined for a top 4 seed in the ACC tournament, which also means a double-round bye before jumping into action. And to think it almost didn’t happen.
North Carolina State had a six point lead with 1:34 remaining in overtime, but great Marcus Paige offense and finally some defense from James Michael McAdoo on Warren created a turnover that made it a tied game. Warren was on the line in the final seconds with a chance to win the game, just like he sent it into overtime minutes earlier. He made only 1-of-2. which was just enough for Paige to make his move and win it for UNC.