UNC guard Marcus Paige meeting own high expectations

acarter@newsobserver.comNovember 26, 2013 

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UNC's Marcus Paige (5) handles the ball during the second half of the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament championship game against Louisville on Sunday November 24, 2193 at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. Paige lead North Carolina with 32 points and the Tar Heels to a 93-84 victory.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Marcus Paige, North Carolina’s sophomore guard, scored more points than he ever had in college, and for an encore he did it again. Then after that second performance, when he scored 32 points to lead the Tar Heels to a victory against No. 3 Louisville on Sunday, Paige acted like it was just a usual thing.

“No,” he said flatly when asked if he has exceeded his own expectations with how he’s started his second season at North Carolina. “I just keep playing with confidence. I’ve always been a confident guy, but seeing shots fall consistently has definitely helped.”

Paige made the comments on Sunday while surrounded by reporters and cameras and microphones. He made the comments after one of the Tar Heels’ most surprising victories in years, though he didn’t seem surprised in the least.

Neither did his head coach, Roy Williams, or his teammates.

“I know he doesn’t remember, but I played him when we were like 9 years old, and he played with the Iowa Stars,” said Nate Britt, the Tar Heels’ freshman guard. “Marcus has always been a great shooter, so I knew all along that he had that scoring ability. And I just feel like right now he’s comfortable.

“And when he’s comfortable, he can play with the best of them. And that’s what he’s doing.”

Paige was solid a season ago, in his freshman year. He struggled early, like a lot of freshmen do, but he gained confidence toward the end of the season, when his perimeter shot began falling more often.

This, though – well, even Williams might not have seen this coming, and he has always believed in Paige’s shooting. When describing Paige’s shooting woes, Williams has often referenced the West Coast hamburger chain, In-and-Out Burger. Paige, Williams likes to say, led the country last season in in-and-outs.

The difference now is that his shot is going in – and staying there. Paige, who is averaging 22.4 points through the Tar Heels’ first five games, is shooting 53.1 percent from the field. Coincidentally, he is also shooting 53.1 percent from behind the 3-point line – nearly 20 percentage points higher than last season.

Paige has always been a good shooter, Williams has said, even if it didn’t show last season. And so Williams has been caught off guard neither by Paige’s early shooting success nor by his ability to penetrate and score, as he did plenty of times over the weekend in Connecticut during North Carolina’s victories against Richmond and Louisville.

Paige’s progression has helped mitigate the loss of junior guard P.J. Hairston and senior guard Leslie McDonald, both of whom are sitting out amid NCAA eligibility concerns. Without those two, North Carolina’s most glaring question was where it would receive production on the perimeter. Paige has provided a definitive answer.

His fast start, though, has created a new set of challenges. He knows defenses will start preparing to stop him.

“They’re going to start keying on myself and James Michael (McAdoo), obviously, just because we’re the ones being aggressive – shooting the ball a lot more,” said Paige, who leads North Carolina in field goal attempts with 64. “But that happens to everybody. When someone starts scoring a lot, you try to make adjustments. …

“You’ve just got to stay aggressive, and your teammates have to understand that they have to stay aggressive, too.”

Paige’s aggressiveness and his success on the perimeter – he has made 17 of North Carolina’s 19 3-pointers this season – has helped open up the offense. It has also alleviated some of the pressure on Britt, UNC’s starting point guard who was thrust into that role because of the situation surrounding Hairston and McDonald.

With Paige in foul trouble on Sunday in the second half against Louisville, Britt excelled. He successfully beat the Cardinals’ pressing defense, and his penetration created scoring opportunities near the basket for himself and his teammates.

Without Hairston and McDonald – it’s uncertain when or if they will play this season – Williams has been tinkering with different lineup combinations. Paige’s production has made the experimentation easier than it might have been otherwise.

“A pretty good lineup for us could be J.P. (Tokoto) at the two, with Marcus at the one and James Michael at the three,” Williams said on Sunday. “But that puts an extremely heavy load – all the ball-handling – on Marcus’ shoulders.”

Paige played 38 minutes on Saturday against Richmond, and 36 more – even amid the foul issues – on Sunday. He sounded energized, though, and refreshed after that game. He spoke with a renewed sense of confidence, both in himself and in his team.

One week earlier, the Tar Heels had lost to Belmont. But, Paige said, “There was no worry.”

“We saw that the effort wasn’t there,” he said. “And that’s one thing that’s pretty easy to correct. If you play harder, you’re going to be more successful. We’re never going to shoot 22 of 48 from the (free throw) line again. And we’re never going to have seven turnovers down the stretch. Like I had three in the last minute that lost us the game. …

“So we were positive, because we know we (could) play a lot better.”

Which is why Paige said he wasn’t surprised on Sunday, neither by his team’s victory against Louisville, nor by his own performance. Both were the kind of thing he expected.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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