In moments like the ones North Carolina found themselves in on Tuesday night, trailing by five points against Kansas State midway through the second half, then by eight with four minutes left – the tension rising – the No. 9 Tar Heels have so often relied on Marcus Paige, the senior guard.
But there he sat on the Tar Heels’ bench, watching for the sixth consecutive game, waiting for his teammates to rise to the moment without him. They did, finally, late in a game-turning run that gave the Tar Heels an 80-70 victory at the Sprint Center in the Hall of Fame Classic championship game.
When UNC coach Roy Williams and his players spoke a couple of weeks ago about how Paige’s injury and absence could be a blessing – that it could help the Tar Heels learn some positive things about themselves, that it could inspire growth – this is likely the kind of thing they were hoping for.
With less than five minutes to play, UNC appeared headed for its second loss in three games. Kansas State, spurred on by a loud crowd here not too far away from its campus in Manhattan, Kan., led the Tar Heels by eight, 67-59, with four minutes, 22 seconds to play.
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From there, though, the Tar Heels went on a 16-1 run to take a seven-point lead with 40 seconds remaining. The defining shots of that run were these: the Joel Berry 3-pointer from the left baseline that cut the Wildcats’ lead to two with three minutes to play. Then, about 45 seconds later, the Justin Jackson floater in the lane that tied the game at 68.
And then, seconds after that, Kennedy Meeks, the lumbering 6-foot-10 forward, jogging his way down the court for the go-ahead layup after a steal at midcourt.
Overall, the Tar Heels closed the game on a 21-3 run.
UNC has undoubtedly missed Paige. It missed him, especially, at the start of this three-game trip to the Midwest, when the then-No. 1 Tar Heels left Northern Iowa with a 71-67 defeat in a game that was a homecoming for Paige, an Iowa native.
And UNC missed Paige during its two games here in Kansas City – a sloppy victory against Northwestern on Monday night and then on Tuesday, when it needed a dramatic late turn of events to turn what appeared would be a defeat into a confidence-building victory.
“The team is trying to find their way and you have that security blanket over there because the best player is sitting over there,” UNC coach Roy Williams said on Monday night, after that win against Northwestern. “And one, your best player always makes a great difference in basketball.
“But we don’t have him.”
The Tar Heels for long stretches on Tuesday night played as if they were waiting for Paige to shed his warmups, enter the game and do what he so often has during the past two years: start making clutch shots. But then others started to make them.
The Berry 3. The Jackson jumper in the lane that tied the score. The Meeks steal and layup that gave UNC the lead for good.
Jackson, for the third consecutive game, scored more than 20 points and led UNC with 22. Meeks finished with 15 points, and Brice Johnson with 10 points and 10 rebounds. And the Tar Heels finished with a victory that looked for a while like it might be a loss – a victory, they hope, that will pay dividends after Paige returns.