North Carolina on Friday during its 101-86 victory against Indiana scored more than it ever had in an NCAA tournament regional semifinal. Some stories:
--And more about Marcus Paige specifically serving as the catalyst.
--UNC, writes columnist Luke DeCock, is looking “more or less unstoppable.”
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--And a special treat: Me on video with some thoughts (which will be expanded here).
And about those thoughts …
1. UNC is indeed looking pretty unbeatable.
At halftime on Friday night Brice Johnson, the senior All-American forward, had made one shot from the field and scored six points. And the Tar Heels still had scored 52 points and led by 11. At one point toward the end of the game, UNC had missed 10 of its 12 shots from the field. And yet it still had scored 95 points up until then. The Tar Heels during the past two or three weeks have become the juggernaut that everyone expected them to be all season. Marcus Paige did his thing on Friday night and finished with 21 points – 18 of them on a season-high six 3-pointers. Johnson eventually got going and finished with 20 points and 10 rebounds, another double-double. UNC went 11-for-20 from 3-point range. When UNC does the kinds of things it did offensively on Friday, it won't lose. That's obvious enough, though. The real reason UNC is looking unbeatable is this, though: Sustained, consistent dominance is becoming the norm. No longer are things like effort and intensity in question. Gone (pretty much) are those mental lapses that hindered this team earlier. Paige is back to playing like his old self. It used to be something of a surprise if UNC managed to avoid getting in its own way. Now it'd be a surprise to see the Tar Heels revert back to their old inconsistent ways.
2. Marcus Paige is officially back.
If you didn't feel quite comfortable saying it before it can be said now, after Paige made a season-high six 3-pointers and ignited a historic offensive performance by making four 3s in the first five minutes on Friday night. In three NCAA tournament games Paige has made 11 of his 21 3-point attempts and he's averaging nearly 15 points. His confidence is back, most of all, and that's probably the biggest difference – Paige is back to expecting individual success. It wasn't always that way when he went through some of the darkest days of that shooting slump. Paige has had a lot of memorable moments in his time at UNC but his teammates seemed a bit awed by what he did early on Friday, when he came out with those four consecutive 3s before the first media timeout. Said Justin Jackson, the sophomore forward: “It's the best time for him to do that. I wouldn't want it any other time. It just adds a whole other dimension to our team.”
3. Kennedy Meeks makes good on his words.
Among other things this is what Meeks said when we spoke on Thursday, the day before UNC's game against Indiana: “I think I'm finally getting back to myself,” and, “I think tomorrow is a big-time opportunity for me.” It was. And Meeks was more like himself – his old self – on Friday night. He finished with 15 points and nine rebounds and provided UNC a boost, especially in the first half while Johnson struggled to be involved. Meeks' reemergence, if it continues, gives UNC coach Roy Williams more flexibility – especially if Isaiah Hicks finds himself in foul trouble. Like he did against Indiana. Hicks played only seven minutes and fouled out. But Meeks' production mitigated Hicks' absence. Meeks' 15 points were two fewer than he'd scored in the past four games combined.
QUICK HITS …
--If you're wondering how UNC dismantled Indiana's defense, here's how Justin Jackson explained it:
“They switched a lot (on screens). And ball screens I think were the biggest part. The (Indiana) bigs really stretched out and kind of kept going, but then their communication and getting back wasn't great. So there's a lot of times we either had the guy coming off the screen was wide open or the guy rolling was wide open, because their rotation wasn't great.”
The Tar Heels should know. They struggled with the same sort of thing in moments earlier this season. And they exploited Indiana's weakness, and its deficiencies off of ball screens.
--UNC was in the bonus, and headed to the free throw line for a one-and-one, less than four minutes into the second half. That sort of thing doesn't happen very often, and no one on Friday could remember another time something like that happened.
“I don't think we've ever had it where we're in the bonus that early,” Johnson said.
--A collection of answers from Paige that I didn't use in my story linked above:
“I think they were a little dejected when Nate Britt made that shot – that 3-pointer that hit the back of the rim really hard and kind of dropped in,” he said of the Hoosiers' attitude. “At that point, they had gotten a couple of stops and they were kind of threatening in the first half. And he drops that in, and it's like, OK – this might not be our night.”
“I wasn't really thinking about that,” he said of making his season-high sixth 3. “But the fact that I got two in a row wide open back-to-back, that was what I wanted, you know. Once I got it I was wide open, I was like I've got to knock this down. Then it came back to me and I was like, I've got to knock this down. And then I got it at like 31, 32 feet, and I was like, 'Ehh.' But that was just kind of to see how they would react.”
“When we're hitting shots it's tough, because our inside game – that's our bread and butter,” he said of how difficult it is to beat UNC when it shoots well from the outside. “That's what we use to try to impose our will on the game. So when they have to worry about us knocking down shots, too, it makes it a lot better. We always preach balance, but we haven't had great balance this year.”
--Over the years Roy Williams' preferred term of endearment for Paige has been “tough little nut.” There was a new one after the game on Friday night (well, actually Saturday morning): “little sucker.”
--And “little sucker” came during Williams' opening statement, when he referenced a Wall Street Journal story that suggested, to Williams, that “I can't coach 3-pointers.”
“So I guess I still can't,” Williams said, “but I know the little sucker over there tonight made four of them before the first TV timeout.”
--Paige, by the way, passed Michael Jordan for 12th place in career scoring. Paige has 1,797 career points. Jordan had 1,788.
Williams said afterward that Paige reminded him that Jordan stayed at UNC for three years, while this is Paige's fourth.
“I said, 'Shut up,'” Williams said. “Your name's going to be ahead of Michael Jordan's in something. Just take that and appreciate it.”
UNC is one victory away from the Final Four ...