CHAPEL HILL — For months, North Carolina coach Roy Williams had insisted that Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels freshman point guard, is a capable perimeter shooter. And for months, Paige had longed to prove Williams right.
He did here in overtime on Saturday, not long after UNC and Virginia Tech ended regulation tied at 55.
Big-time players always make big-time plays, Paige said after the Heels 72-60 victory, repeating a line that Williams routinely tells his players. And I knew that if I had an open opportunity, I was going to knock it down.
Until overtime, the Tar Heels (15-6, 5-3 ACC) on Saturday never could seem to get anything going. They allowed the Hokies (11-10, 2-6) the first 12 points of the game. UNC rallied, led briefly in the second half, and then gave away chances to win at the end of regulation.
To be honest with you, I felt lucky to be in the overtime, Williams said.
Paige might have felt lucky, too, after his turnover with 31 seconds to play in regulation cost the Heels their best opportunity to win before time ran out. His chance for redemption, though, came two minutes into overtime, with UNC leading by a point.
Reggie Bullock passed to Paige on the left side, where he stood a foot or two behind the 3-point line. Paige didnt hesitate, and he released a shot that fell through to give the Heels a four-point lead. After a Virginia Tech turnover, Paige made a short jumper from the right baseline that put UNC ahead by six with 2:05 to play.
Entering Saturday, Paige hadnt scored more than eight points in UNCs previous five games. Against Virginia Tech, eight of his career-high 19 points came in overtime.
Ive said all along I think hes going to be a really good shooter, Williams said, repeating a familiar refrain. He just hasnt done it yet. And I still believe that. But he made some big shots for us in the overtime, he was the most important player on the court for us.
Outside of overtime, when UNC outscored Virginia Tech 17-5, the Tar Heels performance was mostly forgettable. Their start was so dreadful that Williams, who rarely calls timeouts in hopes of quashing opponents runs, called a timeout less than four minutes into the game after the Hokies scored the first 12 points.
The Heels gradually rallied. After trailing by six at halftime, they tied the game about seven minutes into the second half, and they held a lead of two points on three different occasions with less than nine minutes to play. Each time, UNC failed to build off of it.
The last of the Heels leads in regulation came with 1:25 remaining, when Bullocks put back off of an offensive rebound gave UNC a 55-53 lead. The Tar Heels then committed turnovers on their two final possessions of regulation.
I was frustrated at the end because we missed both shots of a two-shot foul and James (Michael McAdoo) turns it over and Marcus turns it over, Williams said. That was three of our last four possessions.
UNC managed to force overtime, though, thanks to a brilliant defensive effort against Erick Green, the Virginia Tech senior guard who entered Saturday leading the nation in scoring. Green, who on Saturday didnt attempt a free throw for the first time all season, made his final shot of regulation with 16:15 to play.
As expected, Green had the ball in his hands with time winding down in regulation. Bullock defended him on the play, and he forced Green to hoist an off-balance jump shot with 4.5 seconds remaining. Jackson Simmons, the Heels sophomore forward, caught Greens air ball, and the game went into overtime moments later.
He likes the little step-back jump shot, UNC guard Dexter Strickland said of Green. So I think it was a smart move on coach to put Reggie on him, because Reggies 6-6, 6-7, (and) can get that length in on defense.
After a poor start, McAdoo led UNC with 22 points and 10 rebounds. McAdoo missed a dunk on the first play of the game, and after a pair of early turnovers, Williams took him out of the game for nearly five minutes.
McAdoo received the message, evidently. While the Heels shot 37.5 percent overall, McAdoo made eight of his 12 attempts from the field. Sixteen of his 22 points came after halftime.
It hurts because you try so hard not to play games like this, McAdoo said. But a win is a win in the ACC. We want to get so much better. We play like that against any other team, I feel like, thats a loss.
It nearly was, anyway, on Saturday. Yet the Tar Heels saved their best for the final five minutes, and they won a game in which they appeared lost early. Williams afterward acknowledged the obvious, and said it wasnt very pretty until overtime. He described the Tar Heels start as terrible.
Yet after UNCs first overtime victory this season, he said he told his players that this will be good for us.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter