CHAPEL HILL — Reggie Bullock laughed when he was asked about the difference between the Marcus Paige in Raleigh and the one who led UNC Saturday.
“Marcus saw the things he didn’t do against them the first time,” Bullock said as he laughed. “He watched film to know what Lorenzo (Brown) like doing.
“He just tried to make things tough for Lorenzo. And Marcus got some open shots against him, and he was knocking them down. He was just being a smart point guard.”
Paige’s smarts were reflected in his final stat line: 14 points on 4-of-10 shooting, eight assists, three rebounds, three steals, and zero turnovers. Defensively, the Wolfpack were able to score only four transition points as Brown’s strength was neutralized. And then the most important number, the stat on the big screen in the Dean Dome: UNC 76, N.C. State 65.
“My little freshman is a tough nut,” Roy Williams said. “He’s getting better and better as we go along.”
Last month in Raleigh, Paige personified the word freshman, missing his first eight shots from the field and getting benched in favor of Luke Davis at one point in the game. In Chapel Hill, he scored four more points in the final seven minutes, 15 seconds of the game than he had during the entire game at N.C. State. And all of Paige’s 14 points came in the game’s final half.
Paige’s first bucket was a 3-pointer following Williams’ substitution of all five players on the floor, and it gave the Tar Heels a 45-43 lead. That shot buoyed UNC into the media timeout, as Scott Wood hit a pair of 3s to put the Wolfpack ahead 49-45.
The second trey Paige hit gave the Tar Heels the lead for good. James Michael McAdoo stole the ball from T.J. Warren, and he fed the ball ahead to Leslie McDonald, who found Paige wide open on the right wing. After hesitating, allowing the vocal section of the crowd enough time to yell, “Shoot!” Paige did just that.
It swished in, giving UNC a 57-55 lead, and the Tar Heels built on that the rest of the way.
“I thought a defender was going to come at me,” Paige said. “And when no one came, I had to shoot it. When you’re open, you’ve got to take your shots and try to make big plays. Luckily it went in, and we went on a run after that.
“A month ago, I might not have taken that shot. But now that I’m more comfortable, I’m starting to play better, I have no problem rising up to take a shot that my teammates want me to take.”
The Tar Heels are plenty comfortable with Paige taking shots – “When he gets his feet set, I always feel like his jumper is going in,” Bullock said – even though Paige’s first instinct is still to pass. He had been looking for a shooter in the corner on that 3, he said. But, like a seasoned veteran, he changed his plan and called his number.
The significance of Paige’s marked improvement against the Wolfpack wasn’t lost on Williams.
“I’m particularly happy since he played so poorly over in Raleigh,” Williams said. “He’s going to be a big time player for us.”
Williams said he didn’t need to remind Paige that his team needed him to play better. And he didn’t, as Paige saw enough of the last N.C. State game to realize he needed to step up. Whether it was with his own shot or court vision to get his teammates shots, Paige directed UNC to its best win of the year. He didn’t look like a freshman. He looked more like a veteran, and a smart one at that.
Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley