When it ended, North Carolina’s best player sat in the team’s locker room, wearing the same suit he wore during the Tar Heels’ 91-67 victory against Temple on Friday night, his right hand in a bandage the way it has been for the past week and a half or so.
It really didn’t hit Marcus Paige that he wasn’t playing – that he couldn’t play – until he arrived at Alumni Hall for the Tar Heels’ game in the Veterans Classic. He watched his teammates dress, watched them go through their warm-ups.
He watched them prepare for the start of a game at the start of a season that begins with national championship hopes. And all the while Paige watched from the sideline, wearing his gray jacket and dark pants and the look of a senior who wished he could have been out on the floor.
“Pretty frustrating,” Paige said more than once. “... It was weird, and you just feel so bad that you’re not out there with your guys. But I was the biggest cheerleader.”
And after a while, after UNC’s sluggish start, after Temple made a run early and kept it close throughout much of the first half, Paige had plenty to cheer. Like, for instance, the dominance of Kennedy Meeks, who finished with a career-high 25 points and 11 rebounds.
And the play of Joel Berry, the sophomore who made his first career start in Paige’s place at point guard, and Nate Britt, who came off the bench and made three 3-pointers and finished with 15 points, third-most on the team.
Those were the highlights in a game in which the Tar Heels wanted to learn something about themselves amid Paige’s absence.
“I feel like it’s scary,” sophomore forward Theo Pinson said. “Because we showed that we can do it – even while (Paige) is out right now. But when he’s back, it’s going to be even more scary.”
That is, scary in a good way for the Tar Heels. And scary in a, well, scary way for the opposition.
UNC scored 91 points Friday night without Paige and much of a contribution from Justin Jackson, the forward who enters his sophomore season with no shortage of expectations. Jackson finished with four points, but his lack of scoring was barely noticeable.
Not with Meeks doing what he did. And with Britt providing what he did off the bench. And with Berry playing like a savvy veteran instead of a player making his first college start at point guard. He finished with 14 points.
Did it take a little while to find some comfort amid his newfound role as a starter? Berry thought about the question.
“Just a little,” Berry said. “It wasn’t too hard to adjust to.”
The Owls (0-1) played the Tar Heels even through about the first 17 minutes. It was tied at 34, after Temple had quickly erased a six-point deficit, with less than three minutes to play in the first half.
But then the Tar Heels ended the first half with a 13-2 run that began like this: a layup from Isaiah Hicks, the junior forward, followed by a 3-pointer from Britt, followed by a lay-up from Meeks, followed by another 3-pointer by Britt.
UNC led 47-36 at halftime and Temple never cut its deficit to fewer than seven points during the second half. Coach Roy Williams, as most coaches like to do, focused some on the mistakes afterward – the defensive lapses, the first shot that Meeks attempted from the field, which Williams called “terrible.”
“First play of the game his game went on vacation,” Williams said. “We talk about going to the basket with everything, and he shot the biggest fadeaway I’ve ever seen in my life. But he has great touch around the basket.”
Meeks showed it after his first miss. He made 10 of his next 13 shots, albeit most of them against smaller players who attempted in vain to guard him.
They usually couldn’t. And so he took advantage. Williams, though, attempted to temper the excitement.
“I keep challenging,” he said. “I’m not going to anoint (Meeks).”
Though Williams said he might start to anoint him if Meeks plays consistently the way he did Friday. Meeks’ goal for him and his teammates while they play without Paige: “Be even stronger while he’s out.”
And the Tar Heels were on against Temple, in a victory that was never in doubt throughout the second half.
Paige, meanwhile, liked what he saw from his teammates – especially from Berry, Britt and Meeks. He described Meeks as a consistent force, and praised the ability of Britt and Berry to force the tempo.
About the only thing Paige didn’t like was watching the game from the bench, and not being out there.