CHAPEL HILL After another victory against another ranked opponent – North Carolina’s third of this young season – Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels’ sophomore point guard, first spoke not of elation but of disappointment.
At halftime of his team’s 82-77 victory against Kentucky at the Smith Center on Saturday, Paige had just two points. He said he felt like he’d let his teammates down, and let down Roy Williams, the UNC coach.
“I felt like I wasn’t helping the team in the first half,” Paige said. “I was kind of going through the motions. I felt like I was in the game, but I just wasn’t making an impact. So I wanted to come out and be more aggressive and try to give my team a lift in the second half.”
Paige responded to his quiet first half with perhaps the best half since arriving at UNC last season. Twenty-one of his 23 points came in the final 20 minutes – and two of those came on free throws that solidified the Tar Heels’ victory with six seconds to play.
After he made the first of those free throws, giving North Carolina a four-point lead, Paige smiled widely. He said he felt like he could relax a little.
There wasn’t much of that, though, for either team on Saturday. The 18th-ranked Tar Heels (7-2) and No. 11 Kentucky (8-3) were tied eight times, and the lead changed five times. UNC took the lead for good with 13 minutes and 26 seconds to play, after the game had been tied at 46.
Paige scored the go-ahead points. Nate Britt, the freshman point guard, scored next for UNC, and then J.P. Tokoto, the sophomore forward, followed. After the game was tied at 46, five UNC players made the Tar Heels’ next five field goals.
“And I love that balance,” Williams said. “I’ve always said that’s the most difficult thing to do.”
In addition to Paige’s game-high 23 points, James Michael McAdoo, UNC’s junior forward, broke out of a recent scoring slump and finished with 20 points – 12 of which came at the freethrow line. Tokoto added 15 for the Tar Heels, who successfully neutralized the Wildcats’ size and strength on the interior.
Kentucky entered the season ranked No. 1 thanks in large part to a six-man freshmen class that many consider to be the best in history. But the Wildcats’ young players couldn’t overcome the Tar Heels’ poise and composure, two traits that helped carry UNC in victories against other highly-ranked opponents.
For the third time this season, UNC beat a ranked team, and its victory on Saturday followed others against then-No. 3 Louisville and then-No. 1 Michigan State. Those two triumphs came away from the Smith Center.
“It was a fun time in that locker room with my kids,” Williams said.
It was a fun – albeit stressful – time on the court, too, for Williams’ team. The Tar Heels twice led by eight points in the final minutes, but three times Kentucky cut UNC’s lead to three points.
One of those times came with two minutes and 15 seconds to play. After a timeout, Paige made a running floater on the baseline to extend UNC’s lead to five points. The Tar Heels got a stop on the other end and Paige broke free in transition. He lobbed an alley-oop to Brice Johnson, the sophomore forward, and the crowd erupted.
Both Paige and Johnson said the moment was the loudest they’d ever heard in the Smith Center. Johnson finished with eight points and Kennedy Meeks, the freshman forward, with just one point.
Even so, UNC outscored Kentucky 38-34 in the paint, and the Tar Heels continually frustrated Kentucky freshman Julius Randle, whose 11 points and five rebounds represented his least productive game of the season.
The scheme against Randle was part of a greater defensive game plan that UNC used to force 17 turnovers. The Tar Heels outscored Kentucky 20-10 in points off turnovers, and those turnovers also helped enable UNC to outscore the Wildcats 14-4 in fastbreak points.
After Paige made the two late free throws in the final seconds, the buzzer sounded and the Tar Heels reveled again in another victory against a marquee program.
It’s starting to become a familiar feeling.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter
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