UNC holds on for 82-77 victory against Kentucky

acarter@newsobserver.comDecember 14, 2013 

— In the final moments of North Carolina’s 82-77 victory against Kentucky at the Smith Center on Saturday, Marcus Paige felt something from within that he often did when he played in high school – a feeling that is becoming stronger and louder early in his second collegiate season.

“Ever since back in high school, if the game was tied (late), I would feel responsibility to take more things into my hands, just be more aggressive, because I have a lot of confidence in myself as a playmaker,” Paige said. “I did that a couple of times last year as a freshman, but I never really had to.”

Now he does. That feeling calmed Paige’s nerves when he made a pair of free throws that solidified the Tar Heels’ lead in the final moments, and on several occasions during the second half it told him to take control. Paige listened.

“Sensational,” Roy Williams, the UNC coach, said of Paige, who scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half.

Paige gave the Tar Heels the lead for good with about 13 ½ minutes to play, and then in the final moments he was most responsible for protecting that lead while Kentucky fought (8-3) to cut it down amid a rollicking, raucous sold-out crowd at the Smith Center.

The 11th-ranked Wildcats twice trailed by as many as eight points during the final six minutes. But then, with two minutes and 15 seconds remaining, they trailed by just three. After a timeout, Paige drove down the left baseline and released a high-arcing floater.

“I’m always kiddingly harping on I don’t like floaters until you show me you can make them,” Williams said.

Paige is showing that he can make them. The shot went in to extend No. 18 UNC’s lead to five. Moments later, after a Kentucky miss, Paige beat the defense in transition and threw a lob to Brice Johnson, the sophomore forward. Johnson finished the play with a decisive dunk and the crowd, energized throughout, was never louder.

Kentucky trailed by seven then, but the Wildcats came back again to make it a three-point game with six seconds to play. Perhaps fittingly, Paige then put the game away with a pair of free throws, and after he made the first one he let loose a wide smile.

It was a contrast to the disappointment and frustration that lingered inside him at halftime, when he had just two points. He said he felt like he’d let Williams down, and his teammates. Paige described himself as “a non-factor" during the first 20 minutes.

“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.”

In addition to Paige’s 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 free throw line. J. P. Tokoto added 15 for the Tar Heels (7-2), 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. The Wildcats’ young players, though, 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, and so UNC on Saturday had a chance to celebrate one in front of its home crowd.

“It was a fun time in that locker room with my kids,” Williams said.

Paige provided the highlights late – and the clutch scoring when UNC most needed points – but this was among the Tar Heels’ most balanced performances. With the game tied at 46 with about 14 minutes remaining, five UNC players made the team’s next five field goals.

McAdoo and Tokoto led the team throughout the first half, before Paige emerged in the second. In a game full of former high school All-Americans – six Kentucky freshman were McDonald’s All-Americans just last season – Paige was the best.

“I’ve known Marcus since seventh grade, playing on the AAU circuit, playing in camps together,” Tokoto said. “I knew he was a scorer. So it’s not surprising. It’s great to see. But it’s not anything I haven’t seen before from Marcus.”

Paige scored a career-high 32 points in the victory against Louisville, and he made some important shots late in victories a season ago. Then came Saturday, and another performance in which he saved his best for last.

Paige during the second half benefited from screens that gave him space on the perimeter, and he took advantage of mismatches when he found himself paired against larger, slower defensive players. He thrived in part because Williams’ game plan put him in a position to do so, but also because of a voice from within, one that guided him to be at his best when his team most needed it.

Observations

– UNC limited Kentucky freshman Julius Randle to just 11 points and five rebounds – his least productive game of the season. Part of Randle’s troubles on Saturday were the result of foul trouble – he finished with four – but the Tar Heels also successfully employed a game plan that clearly left Randle flustered. “I remember one thing that coach (Hubert) Davis was saying was that he doesn’t like space, so I’d back off of him,” UNC forward Brice Johnson said. “And then he’d try and do something quick and then walk. So that’s just one thing that the coaches really did a great job with. They really helped us out with that, just knowing what his weakness are.”

– UNC and Kentucky combined for 56 fouls but foul trouble most affected the Wildcats. Two Kentucky players – guard James Young and forward Alex Poythress – fouled out and three more finished with four fouls. UNC again struggled from the free throw line – it made 26 of his 45 attempts – but Kentucky wasn’t much better (29-of-43).

– Tar Heels coach Roy Williams dismissed the notion that his team physically manhandled Kentucky, but John Calipari, the Wildcats’ coach, might disagree. Said Calipari: “Here’s what you had – you had a team that came at us physically. We couldn’t even get open on the wings. They fought us in the post. We couldn’t throw post passes.” Calipari went on. He said, “We’re not a good team,and players aren’t looking real good.”

– Marcus Paige, UNC’s sophomore guard, made all 10 of his free throw attempts on Saturday. Teams from the state of Kentucky might avoid putting him on the line. In addition to the 10-for-10 performance against Kentucky, Paige made all 11 of his free throw attempts in a victory against Louisville last month.

Video Highlights: North Carolina 82, Kentucky 77 - Marcus Paige led all scorers with 23 points to lead UNC over Kentucky. James Michael McAdoo added 20 points and J.P Tokoto dropped in 15 for the Tar Heels:

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

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