UNC's 'tough little nut' Paige still learning on the job

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 13, 2013 

DUKEUNC10-SP-030913-RTW

UNC's Marcus Paige (5) looses control of the ball as Duke's Josh Hairston (15) goes after the ball during the second half on Saturday March 9, 2013 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Marcus Paige might not look all that tough – there are only about 155 pounds packed onto his 6-foot frame – but North Carolina coach Roy Williams has consistently lauded Paige’s toughness during the second half of the season.

More than once, Williams has described Paige as a “tough little nut,” or a variation of the phrase. And now Paige, the Tar Heels’ freshman point guard, will be asked to display that toughness and resiliency again while he leads UNC into the ACC tournament.

Paige has come a long way since the start of the season, but his improvement hasn’t been measured in a straight line. There have been dips and peaks and dips again, the latest coming during the Heels’ 69-53 loss against Duke to end the regular season.

Paige finished that game with six assists, but five turnovers. His shooting, which has, at times, been one of Paige’s strengths during the second half of the season, suffered, too. He made just one of six shots and finished with four points.

Because the game against Duke came on Senior Night at the Smith Center, Paige didn’t start like he normally does. After entering the game, he had difficulty managing UNC’s offense and calming the Heels after they’d fallen behind 14-0.

“It’s difficult,” Paige said of stopping negative momentum. “You’ve got to have some things start to go your way to be able to stop it successfully, and we didn’t make a lot of shots, we had too many turnovers.”

Overall, UNC’s performance against Duke brought back memories of some of its more difficult early-season losses, including the blowout at Indiana in November, and the poor showing in December at Texas, where the Tar Heels never recovered from a poor start. Individually against Duke, Paige appeared to revert to his early-season form, too.

Eventually, UNC’s losses against Butler, Indiana and Texas, and its 0-2 start in ACC play, caused the Heels to refocus.

“That’s one way to look at it,” Paige said. “It shouldn’t take a loss to focus and stuff like that. But if you want to look at it that way, we’ll obviously have to understand that the small lineup or whatever isn’t invincible and stuff like that, and that we have to come out ready to play, and play the way we’ve been playing.”

The rough game against Duke came after Paige committed eight turnovers in UNC’s win at Maryland. The combined 13 turnovers he’s had during the past two games are the most Paige has had in back-to-back games this season.

The lessons that came with those losses in November and December, though, brought a sense of toughness, Paige said. Like his team, he has struggled at times, but he also has played with resiliency.

“We’ve had some games like this earlier in the season and we failed to bounce back,” Paige said. “But I think the progress we’ve shown, especially through the second half of ACC play, has shown that we can bounce back from a game like that and go back to the way we were playing.”

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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