Another ranked opponent, another victory for North Carolina. The Tar Heels on Saturday defeated Kentucky in an 82-77 victory that was UNC’s third against a team ranked among the top 11 nationally. The Wildcats, who entered the season ranked No. 1, were No. 11 in the Associated Press top 25.
And here’s a column from our Luke DeCock, who writes that less is turning out to be more for the Tar Heels.
UNC already had defeated then-No. 3 Louisville and then-No. 1 Michigan State. So in the middle of December, we can say with confidence that UNC has the best postseason resume in the country. It can’t be overstated how important these three victories will be the Tar Heels come time for the selection committee to seed the NCAA tournament.
That, of course, is a ways away. For now, let’s look back at another marquee victory. …
1. Marcus Paige is becoming the most dangerous kind of playmaker – one that excels in clutch moments.
The term “killer instinct” often gets tossed around in sports. It’s a cliché, to be sure, and I’m not a fan of the phrase. Paige, though, is developing that instinct – one that tells him to take over amid tense moments, when UNC most needs something good to happen. We saw flashes of this at times during Paige’s freshman season, and again when he scored a career-high 32 points against Louisville.
What he did yesterday, though, was a little bit different. He seized control of the game in the second half, when he scored 21 of his 23 points. When Kentucky cut UNC’s lead to three points with about two minutes to play, Paige made that running floater – a shot that Roy Williams doesn’t even like all that much, but accepts because Paige can make it – to extend the lead back to five. And then came the assist on the alley-oop to Brice Johnson – a moment that probably provided one of the loudest roars at the Smith Center in recent history – and UNC led by seven. And when Kentucky cut it back down to three in the final seconds? Paige made two free throws to put the game away.
2. Welcome back, James Michael McAdoo.
You knew it was just a matter of time before McAdoo became more of a factor on offense than he has been. Before Saturday, he had scored no more than 13 points in UNC’s past five games. He scored 20 against Kentucky – 12 of those points coming at the free throw line – and he also led the Tar Heels with four assists. McAdoo also had five rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot. Overall, this was among his best performances of the season – a performance that should be a confidence-builder for him going forward. McAdoo attempted just six shots from the field but made four of those. His mid-range jumper was effective, and he had a couple of strong moves to the basket that ended either in a made shot or a trip to the free throw line.
3. The Tar Heels are starting to find their rhythm without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald.
Williams, it appears, has basically settled on a seven-man rotation that includes Nate Britt, Paige, J.P. Tokoto, McAdoo, Joel James, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks. All of them played at least 19 minutes on Saturday aside from James, who played 13 minutes. Jackson Simmons, Luke Davis and Isaiah Hicks are receiving some spot minutes here and there.
It took a while, but it looks like Williams has found the rotation that he’s most comfortable with and the one that can be most productive for his team given it continues to be without P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. Roles are now more clearly defined than they were, and UNC’s increased comfort level is clear. Tokoto and Britt, in particular, were vital on Saturday. Tokoto had 15 points and at times carried UNC during the first half. Britt finished with eight points and again successfully penetrated the defense.
You have to wonder, at this point, how the potential return of Hairston and McDonald would affect UNC. Yes, both players would be welcome additions. Hairston would enter the starting lineup immediately. McDonald, like Hairston, would improve UNC’s perimeter offense. It’s interesting to think about, though. Who ever thought that UNC would have such a good thing going that the return of one, or both, of those guys would raise questions about how they’d fit in?
UNC was the better shooting team and did a slightly better job of getting to the free throw line – no small feat against a Kentucky team that is quite adept itself at generating free-throw opportunities. The Wildcats showed why they’re one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the nation. The difference in the game, though, was UNC’s ability to generate turnovers. Kentucky had 17 of those. UNC outscored Kentucky 20-10 in points off of turnovers.
--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.
--Both Paige and Johnson said they’d never heard the Smith Center louder than it was when Paige threw the alley-oop to Johnson with less than 90 seconds to play. That put the Tar Heels ahead by seven points, and prompted Kentucky to call a timeout.
--J.P. Tokoto is 23-of-38 from the floor during the past four games. He made seven of his 10 field goal attempts on Saturday.
--In the second half against Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, UNC shot a combined 55.1 percent from the floor.
“It was a fun time in that locker room with my kids.”
“I think they’ve accepted (their roles). I’m not sure that we’ve figured it out yet. I think they’ve accepted it. J.P. knows he’s going to spend some time at the two, James Michael knows he’s going to spend some time at the three. With such a young group and sometimes and immature group, we don’t want to give them too fat and happy kind of thing.”
“Well, making shots was the biggest part of it, but 8-for-8 from the free throw line in the second half. I think he made one big 3 for us, too. But I think that we did a better job of screening for him in the second half. They did a lot of switching, so we tried to get big screening for little, particularly for Marcus. I think guys looked for him more. He made two unbelievable shots. That little floater on the baseline. I’m always kiddingly harping on I don’t like floaters until you show me you can make them. And he’s coming pretty doggone close.”
-Williams, on Marcus Paige
“I felt like I wasn’t helping the team in the first half. 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.”
“They were switching ball screens, so you either try to beat the big guy off the dribble or sometimes you can lull them to sleep, and they’re not as quick to react to a jump shot. I saw him starting to back up a little bit and I just felt like I needed to make that.”
“Ever since back in high school, I would try to – if the game was tied, 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. I did that a couple of times last year as a freshman, but I never really had to. And with this team, I feel like myself, James Michael just kind of have to be those guys and really step up down the stretch and lead some of the freshmen.”
“Every game in this locker room (believed we could beat Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky). We didn’t really try to look forward to games like today. But we knew that when games like today came around – they gave us the cool shoes, the whiteout. Like we were hyped for this game, regardless.”
-James Michael McAdoo
UNC hosts Texas on Wednesday night at the Smith Center.