North Carolina

Paige challenges Tar Heel teammates after 75-64 loss to Virginia

Virginia’s Mike Tobey blocks a shot attempt by UNC’s Kennedy Meeks during the first half on Monday at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
Virginia’s Mike Tobey blocks a shot attempt by UNC’s Kennedy Meeks during the first half on Monday at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill. rwillett@newsobserver.com

North Carolina guard Marcus Paige had done this kind of thing before – address his teammates after a difficult loss – but this, after the Tar Heels’ 75-64 defeat against Virginia on Monday night, was different.

Paige’s words were firmer, his message more direct, his challenge more serious.

“It’s really eating him up right now,” Brice Johnson, the junior forward, said on Monday.

As Johnson recalled the scene inside the Tar Heels’ locker room, Paige’s words were these:

“He was like, ‘Hey, you guys got to look at yourself in the mirror and say whether you’re actually doing everything you can. Because if you sit there and say you are, then you’re lying to yourself.’ ”

Harsh words and, perhaps, words the No. 12 Tar Heels (17-6, 7-3 ACC) needed to hear after this, their second consecutive second-half meltdown. Two days earlier, on Saturday afternoon, UNC led Louisville by 18 early in the second half only to lose that game in overtime.

Then came Monday night, and another strong first-half performance. Followed by another disappointing one in the second half, when UNC came apart, again, amid a torrent of missed shots, failed box outs and turnovers that proved costly.

They sounded almost jealous, UNC coach Roy Williams and some of his players, describing how No. 3 Virginia (20-1, 8-1) played, with so much discipline and togetherness and hustle and balance. Four Cavaliers finished with at least 13 points, led by Malcolm Brogdon’s 17.

“I just admire what Tony’s team has done,” Williams said of Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett. “He does a great job coaching them and those kids have bought into it completely. They share basketball, they don’t turn it over. Guys make shots. They take shots that they can make. They guard you like crazy.”

All things that UNC didn’t do – at least not consistently – on Monday night at the Smith Center. The Tar Heels led by one at halftime, and trailed by just four points with about 12 minutes to play.

But then the Cavaliers scored the next nine points – scored twice after offensive rebounds – while the Tar Heels missed two shots and turned it over once. Suddenly, Virginia’s 48-44 lead turned into a 57-44 lead with eight minutes, 40 seconds to play.

UNC never again threatened to challenge the Cavaliers. Which led to Paige’s stern postgame address.

“We have talent,” he said. “We have pieces. But if you don’t have five guys buying in, playing every possession the way coach preaches, you know, it sounds cliché ... that’s boring talk for media, it’s not anything juicy for you guys. But it’s the truth.”

The Tar Heels’ past two losses have come against two top-10 teams. Virginia had been ranked second nationally and undefeated before losing against Duke on Saturday night. So the competition has something to do with UNC’s first losing streak of the season.

So, too, though, do problems that keep recurring – the turnovers and the temporary rebounding breakdowns and the occasional poor shot followed by another. The Tar Heels have talked about these issues before, after losses against Butler and Iowa and Kentucky.

The same lessons, Paige said, presented themselves after all those defeats. Yet the problems persist.

“It is February, you know?” Paige said. “The season’s rolling. Great teams at this time are meshing together. You don’t have to keep preaching effort, keep preaching buying in, not worrying about your individual self.

“(You should be asking) what can I do to help the team? How can I help a teammate? What is the best thing for North Carolina? And that’s something we’re struggling with right now for whatever reason.”

Paige, who led UNC on Monday night with 15 points, said he wasn’t going “call guys out.” But he said, repeatedly, that everyone – himself included – “just has to do a better job” of heeding Williams’ message, which Paige said hasn’t completely sunk in.

There were some bright spots for UNC. It led 33-32 at halftime, for instance, after a Kennedy Meeks’ tip-in while time expired at the end of the first half. For about the first 10 minutes of the second half, too, the Tar Heels played one of the nation’s best teams nearly evenly.

Eventually, though, Virginia pulled away thanks to its ability to generate quality shots – the Cavaliers shot 51.8 percent – and because of its aggressive defense that double-teamed UNC in post. Those double teams helped force Kennedy Meeks, the sophomore forward, into committing six turnovers.

UNC attempted a feeble comeback in the final minutes, after Virginia led by as many as 18 points, and a Paige 3 made it a nine-point game with 80 seconds to play. Briefly there was life in the Smith Center, and noise – at least from those who decided to stick around that long.

But UNC came no closer. And it came away, again, questioning why these same questions – about toughness and urgency and buying in and all the rest – keep coming up.

Meeks said he thought he and his teammates “got fat and happy” with their halftime lead. Paige attempted to set a different mood afterward.

“We can’t keep talking about change,” he said. “We’ve got to have guys look in the mirror and decide they’re going to change, buy in, and then some good things will happen.”

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