Marcus Paige walked out of the North Carolina locker room repeating the numbers back to himself, appearing half humored by them and half agitated: “six for 24,” he said, shaking his head.
He was happy, overall, after the Tar Heels’ 67-55 victory against N.C. State at the Smith Center on Saturday but a bit in disbelief, too, at how poorly he and his some of his teammates had played. Paige finished with three points. Brice Johnson with six. Justin Jackson with six.
They’re the Tar Heels’ three leading scorers and they scored a combined 15 points on Saturday.
“Me and Brice average more than 15 points, and we’re 6-of-24 from the field between us three,” Paige said, repeating that statistic back again, this time for reporters. “So that’s not the type of offensive output we’ve been having all year.”
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And yet, Paige said, “To still win by 12 in a gutty game is a positive.”
That’s why Paige was happy afterward, and why Johnson sat with a wide smile after foul trouble limited him to 18 minutes, six points and two rebounds. They were in a good mood because they’d won – and won in a way they rarely had in recent years.
N.C. State on Saturday tried to use the same strategy it used, with success, last February during the Wolfpack’s 58-46 victory against UNC at the Smith Center: slow the game down, win with defense, limit the Tar Heels’ scoring chances.
And it worked, to an extent. The Wolfpack’s slower tempo led to a game with 62 possessions, fewest of the season for UNC. The Tar Heels shot a season-low 37.9 percent and tied their season low in points. And yet in the final moments the result wasn’t in doubt.
“It’s all right,” Johnson said when asked if this had been just another one of those confounding, frustrating games for him, given his difficult pursuit of consistency. “We got a win. That’s all that matters. I mean, not like I haven’t had that before. I wish it didn’t happen.
“It’s just – we still won. It doesn’t really matter.”
UNC had won this season with quiet offensive games from Paige. It had won without much from Johnson, or when Jackson failed to be at his best.
But the Tar Heels hadn’t won like this. They hadn’t won with Paige, Johnson and Jackson struggling at same moments in the same game, and with all three remaining in a funk throughout.
“We’re a very deep team when it comes to our bench,” Johnson said. “Our guys that come off the bench, they really can come in and score the ball, like Nate (Britt) and Isaiah (Hicks), those guys can really come in and help us on the offensive end, as well as on the defensive end.
“In the first half, Nate was probably one of the toughest guys out there.”
Indeed, Britt provided the Tar Heels a boost in the first half on Saturday. He made a 3-pointer and created two steals, and provided a spark and some energy at a time when UNC lacked it.
And Hicks, too, thrived in the first half at a time when some of his other teammates didn’t. At halftime, with the scored tied at 29, he was UNC’s leading scorer with eight points.
The Tar Heels went to the locker room tied at halftime after hearing, for days, from coach Roy Williams about what N.C. State had done to UNC a season ago in the Smith Center. Williams earlier this week had said the Wolfpack “whacked” the Tar Heels here 11 months ago, and he wouldn’t let his players forget it.
And then Williams was surprised on Saturday, he said, at how flat his team appeared to be early on. He said it was a “weird” game and that UNC was “fortunate” to win. He said “there were some strange things going on” – most notably the inability of his guards, outside of Joel Berry, to make many shots.
N.C. State during the first several minutes repeatedly beat UNC to rebounds, and often turned those rebounds into second-chance points. At halftime, as he often does, Williams challenged his players – especially his post players. Kennedy Meeks, for one, responded with his best half of the season.
“Effort,” Meeks, who scored 18 of his 23 points in the second half, said when asked what the difference was for him after halftime. “Diving on the floor. Doing whatever I can to get us those extra possessions.”
Meeks was the primary reason why UNC won by 12 despite not receiving its normal contributions from Paige, Johnson and Jackson. Meeks, who recently missed seven games while recovering from a bruised bone in his left knee, started on Saturday for the first time since a Dec. 12 loss at Texas.
The increased effort that he described resulted in a few spots of dried blood on the white covering he wore over his left leg. He’d spent so much time on the floor, going after loose balls, that Williams asked Meeks, in jest, if somebody had tripped him.
“I just told him that was me diving on the floor,” Meeks said with a smile.
Like the rest of his teammates he was content, too, with a victory that UNC owed to its depth. Johnson endured another frustrating performance and Paige finished with three points for the second consecutive game.
And yet it didn’t matter.
“Even on a bad night overall, I don’t have to force my hand,” said Paige, who so often the past two seasons did have to force shots. “I don’t have to create or do too much. I took some good open shots and was clanking them all over the place.
“It’s not my duty this year to put the team on my back or shoot the ball or have the ball on every possession.”