Marcus Paige has heard the criticism and the questions so often he played the voice of an imaginary critic in his mind after North Carolina’s 76-72 victory at Duke on Saturday night. It sounded like this:
“After Duke tied it up with 11 minutes to go, they’re probably not picking us to win this game,” Paige, the Tar Heels’ senior guard, said, before reciting the voice. “Oh, Carolina lost an 8-point lead. Duke’s got a little bit of momentum. This one’s over.
“Well, ask them again now. See how they answer that question.”
After the game, Paige and his teammates sounded like a group tired of answering questions about toughness and resolve. And for one night, at least, they received a reprieve after securing a victory that appeared in doubt midway through the second half.
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UNC led Duke by 11 points in the first half and by 10 with 19 minutes remaining.
And then seven minutes later it was tied after Grayson Allen, the Blue Devils’ sophomore guard, made a 3-pointer. The Tar Heels had seen this show before: a double-digit lead gone, an opposing arena at its loudest and most electric.
It was the kind of situation that has often doomed the Tar Heels, both this season and last. Finishing games strongly has remained a problem, even after UNC coach Roy Williams and his players made that an off-season emphasis after several late-game collapses a season ago.
This time, though, UNC wrote a new script. The Tar Heels scored a quick four points after Duke tied the game at 49, and UNC led the rest of the way despite shooting poorly at times.
“It says that we’re a very tough team,” Brice Johnson, the senior forward, said afterward. “We can grind it out even in the toughest places to play. To come in here and be able to withstand their runs and be able to get a win – not a lot of teams can say they can come in here and beat them.
“We’re one of those teams that can.”
That’s what Williams tried to remind his players before tip-off: that UNC could. That it was capable.
He referenced UNC’s first 2012 game against Duke. The teams played each other first at the Smith Center that season. The Tar Heels led throughout and entered the final minutes in control.
Then all of a sudden they weren’t. One thing went wrong after the next, and Duke’s Austin Rivers won the game with a 3-pointer that fell through the rim moments after the final buzzer sounded.
Williams found a parallel between that night in 2012 and what happened to his team a few weeks ago, when it played against Duke for the first time this season. It was the same kind of thing: a game that UNC controlled, only to lose it in inexplicable fashion in the final seconds.
Williams reminded his players on Saturday of what happened in 2012 the second time UNC played against Duke. The Tar Heels played one of their most complete games of the season and clinched the ACC regular season championship.
Much like they did on Saturday night. UNC didn’t provide its best performance of the season at Duke. But it was among the Tar Heels’ grittiest. They sealed their victory at the free throw line, where they calmly made all eight of their attempts during the final 26 seconds.
Paige made four of those, with both sets of his free throws coming moments after Duke had cut UNC’s lead to two points in the final seconds. Both times, Paige had to make both free throws to maintain a two-possession lead. And both times he did.
Before his success at the free throw line in the final seconds, Paige had labored through another long shooting night. He’d missed seven of his 10 attempts from the field. At the free throw line, though, when UNC most needed him to make shots, it was a different story.
“That’s the guy I want on the free throw line with 1.5 seconds to go in Cameron to win the ACC championship,” Johnson said.
What the Tar Heels did at the line late mirrored the story of the game: When they most needed to make the necessary play, the winning play, they did. And that represented a change, for one night at least, and allowed UNC to answer those persistent questions about its toughness.
Paige and his teammates had received a lot of those after the first game against Duke. They’ve heard, too, the criticism that the Tar Heels lacked an ability to finish.
“I don’t know what to think about that,” Paige said. “I don’t see a lack of killer instinct today. That’s all I’ve got to say.”