Even during the depths of the worst shooting slump of his life, Marcus Paige saw the dim light of a breakthrough, and believed it was only a matter of time before he’d regain his touch and do the kind of thing he did in the first half Friday night against Indiana.
Paige, the North Carolina senior guard, had a while ago broken out of the slump. And yet still, he’d been waiting to replicate the kind of pure shooting streak he so often experienced during his sophomore and junior seasons. It finally came early during UNC’s 101-86 victory against the Hoosiers.
In victory, UNC, a No. 1 seed, advanced to the NCAA tournament East regional championship game, where the Tar Heels on Sunday will play against sixth-seeded Notre Dame. UNC will be appearing in a regional final for the 27th time, and first since 2012.
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And among the best news for the Tar Heels (31-6), aside from simply reaching a regional championship game: They’ll be playing on Sunday with Paige, at last, looking like the player everyone – including himself – expected him to be entering the season.
He finished with 20 points and six assists on Friday, and early on he ignited what became one of UNC’s greatest offensive performances in the NCAA tournament. The Tar Heels were so good that at one point toward the end of the game it missed 10 of 12 shots from the field – and still had 95 points at that point.
“We always talk about how we’re going to play loose, and we like to have fun,” said Paige, who on Friday night made a season-high six 3-pointers – four of them in the first five minutes. “But the best way to have fun – and I’ve said this three or four times throughout the tournament – the best way to have fun is to play well and play great basketball.”
UNC did that played perhaps its best offensive game of the season, at least for the first 30 or 35 minutes. In the final moments the only question was whether the Tar Heels would score 100 points for the first time ever in a regional semifinal. They reached that milestone on Joel Berry’s layup with about 30 seconds remaining.
That was another highlight in a game full of them – and a lot of them began with Paige, who tied UNC’s single-game record for most 3s in a single game, and became the first player in college basketball history to make at least two 3s in his first 10 NCAA tournament games.
It took Paige 33 seconds to make his first 3-pointer on Friday night. It came from near the top of the key. About 2 ½ minutes later, he made his second one, and then his third came about 90 seconds after that, and his fourth 18 seconds after his third.
Said Tom Crean, the Indiana coach, afterward: “Marcus was making video game shots to start the game. I mean, seriously.”
After Paige’s fourth 3 the Tar Heels led 14-8, five minutes in, but Paige’s shooting – so mystifying during those cold streaks earlier in the season – ignited what perhaps became UNC’s finest offensive half of the season. In some ways what Paige did seemed to be contagious.
UNC arrived in the Wells Fargo Center on Friday night the worst 3-point shooting team that remained in the NCAA tournament. The Hoosiers (27-8), who entered the game having made nearly 42 percent of their 3s this season, were among the best.
And yet it was UNC’s shooting, combined with the Tar Heels’ ability to turn turnovers into points, that made the difference early and allowed the Tar Heels to separate themselves. UNC during the first half made seven of its eight 3-point attempts and shot 62.1 percent overall, its fourth-highest percentage in a half this season.
There was Paige, who scored all 14 of his first-half points during the first 10 minutes, making shots from the perimeter. And Justin Jackson, the sophomore forward, knocking in two 3s of his own on his way to 13 first-half points.
The Tar Heels weren’t bad on the interior, either. Brice Johnson, the senior forward and first-team All-ACC selection, labored through a quiet first half but Kennedy Meeks, the junior who had been struggling, picked up some of the slack and scored six of UNC’s 22 first-half points in the paint.
By halftime the Tar Heels led 52-41 after their highest-scoring first half the season. The only question then was whether they could maintain one of their best offensive performances of the season, and whether they could pull away and quash Indiana’s hopes of a comeback.
The answer, to both questions, was a resounding yes. Paige made his fifth 3-pointer, which tied his season high, about three minutes into the second half, and that gave the Tar Heels a 59-43 lead.
Earlier in the day, Roy Williams, the UNC coach, had read a story in the Wall Street Journal that questioned his team’s ability to make the outside shot. It was a story that some close to the program didn’t like, because it questioned Williams’ ability to adapt to a different style of basketball.
“Steve (Kirschner) was mad this morning,” Williams said of his team’s spokesman. “Told me about an article that said I can’t coach 3-pointers, so I guess I still can’t but I know the little sucker over there tonight made four of them before the first TV timeout.”
The “little sucker,” as Williams put it, was Paige.
The Hoosiers in the second half cut their deficit down to 10 points, three times, but never came any closer. All three of those times Indiana attempted to start a rally, UNC responded on its next possession.
After Indiana cut UNC’s lead to 10 the first time in the second half, Meeks, who finished with 15 points and nine rebounds, made a pair of free throws.
Johnson, who finished with 20 points, did the same after Indiana trimmed UNC’s lead to 10 the second time and when it happened again, Berry followed with a 3-pointer. The team that couldn’t make 3s for long stretches this season made 11 of its 20 3-point attempts on Friday night.
After Berry’s 3 the Tar Heels gradually stretched their lead. It grew to 20, their largest at the time, with a little less than 10 minutes to play, and grew as large as 22.
There was no doubt in the final minutes, outside of whether UNC would break various NCAA tournament records: Most points ever in a regional semifinal, most 3s for one player in an NCAA tournament game.
UNC set the points record and Paige tied the one for 3-pointers, and the Tar Heels advanced with little drama amid an offensive performance to remember.