North Carolina's 94-70 victory against Appalachian State hadn't been over 30 minutes and, already, Marcus Paige had reassured his parents “like six times,” Paige said, that he was OK – that the ankle injury he endured on Monday night wasn't serious.
The Tar Heels on Monday at the Smith Center won a game that coach Roy Williams described as “weird,” a game in which UNC was at times sloppy and at times dominant. Yet Paige's health overshadowed it, somewhat, after he injured his ankle midway through the first half.
It happened when he blocked a 3-point attempt from the Mountaineers' Frank Eaves. Paige landed awkwardly and “jammed” his right ankle, a team spokesman said – the same ankle that underwent surgery last spring to repair a condition that led to the plantar fasciitis that hampered Paige last season.
“The area where I had surgery is sometimes sensitive still,” Paige, the senior guard, said after he finished with nine points and one assist and became the 12th player in ACC history with 1,500 points, 500 assists, 150 steals and 200 3-pointers. “So it just kind of jammed that specific part of my ankle.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“(It was) kind of was painful, and then I just couldn't really loosen it up.”
He tried to play through it. After leaving the bench to have his ankle examined Paige returned a few minutes later before UNC led 49-38 at halftime. But he didn't play in the second half, a move that was more precautionary than anything, though Williams said Paige likely wouldn’t have played even had the circumstances been more competitive.
The sight of Paige limping off the court in the first half was alarming to Williams and to Paige's teammates, who were forced to play on without him during UNC's first six games while Paige recovered from a broken bone in his right hand. Last year Paige was more often than not injured, too.
“I was a little nervous a little bit,” Joel Berry, the sophomore guard, said after he finished with 11 points and 11 assists, his first double-double at UNC. “Just because he had missed a couple of games already this season, and I just want to see Marcus on the court, playing.
“I was a little nervous but when he told us he was all right, I was good then.”
And Paige meant it this time, too. He said the same thing last season, while he played on through the plantar fasciitis but, in reality, Paige was in pain.
“I'm not worried about it at all and I know I'll be fine,” Paige said on Monday. “And I'm not just saying that – you know, last year I was saying I was fine but I was hurt. This is nothing.”
The Tar Heels missed Paige in the second half, but they didn't exactly struggle without him. UNC finally began to create some distance against the Mountaineers, who are among the weakest teams on UNC's schedule, with about 10 minutes remaining.
The game came two days after the Tar Heels defeated UCLA in a marquee game in Brooklyn at the Barclays Center, and four days before Christmas. And it had that feel, too, with UNC plodding along during long stretches, at times looking like a team ready for the holiday break.
“I think everyone is just ready to go home,” Berry said, “(and) see their family for a little bit before we come back and have that stretch where we're just playing basketball (before the spring semester starts).”
Not that UNC lacked for highlights. The Tar Heels had five dunks in the first half, two of them on consecutive early possessions when Brice Johnson finished possessions at the rim.
Johnson finished with 22 points -- his third consecutive game with more than 20 points -- and made his first five attempts from the field, which allowed him to tie Brad Daugherty's school record of 16 consecutive made shots. On Johnson's sixth attempt, the one that would have set a record had he made it, he attempted a 15-foot jump shot.
“Brice makes his first five shots and then decides to see if he can be Jerry West and shoot a jump shot, and misses it,” Williams said.
Johnson said later he wasn't aware that he was close to setting a school record for consecutive makes.
“Oh, man,” he said, drawing out the words with a light-hearted sigh. “I didn't know that. Whatever. Maybe I'll get a streak again.”
The Tar Heels led by 14 midway through the first half but Appalachian State outscored UNC during the rest of the half. And the Mountaineers hung around, somewhat, until UNC took its first 20-point lead midway through the second half.
Williams didn't tinker much with his lineups or rotations. He found frustration in his team's defense, which allowed the Mountaineers to shoot 51.6 percent in the first half, and UNC's rebounding in the first half, when Appalachian State finished with two more rebounds, concerned him, too.
Paige's injury scare aside, though, Williams' team accomplished what he wanted it to accomplish.
“We did nothing tonight to experiment,” he said after a victory against an over-matched opponent. “We just tried to win a game and give everybody some confidence.”