Tar Heels win thriller against Cardinals at Chapel Hill

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UNC basketball coach Roy Williams

By Scott Hamilton/The Winston-Salem Journal

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The basketball dripped gently through the rim. Marcus Paige tumbled hard into the basket.

Actually, Paige hurtled awkwardly into the nook formed at the base of the basket Saturday afternoon.

His arms and legs flailed wildly as he tumbled into a cameraman and an arena worker while making the clinching shot in North Carolina’s 72-71 victory over No. 5 Louisville. He had bounced the ball high off the backboard, a scoop shot practiced repeatedly by little guys who play a big-man’s game.

Less than 9 seconds remained and defense still had to be played. The best position Paige could assume, however, was that of a bystander on his backside while Louisville tried an ill-fated shot on the other end. His momentum catapulted him well off the court and essentially out of the game in the frantic final seconds.

That was a well-earned position, given all that Paige has endured so far this season.

From nagging injuries and missed opportunities to the venom that comes when expectations aren’t met along Tobacco Road, Paige deserved a moment to see if something would finally break his way. Bottled-up pandemonium spewed throughout the Dean Smith Center and reached ear-popping levels as Paige, with a huge smile, soaked it in and pondered what transpired.

Obviously, it meant UNC (12-4, 2-1 ACC) wouldn’t lose its second-straight ACC home game.

The Tar Heels lost to No. 13 Notre Dame last Monday 71-70, a defeat that saw UNC miss its final eight shots. That setback ended with Paige scoring a season-low seven points and missing at least two prime opportunities inside the final 30 seconds.

There would be no repeat of all of that against Louisville (14-2, 2-1) as the Tar Heels played in consecutive one-point games for the first time since the 1981 ACC Tournament (wins over Wake Forest and Maryland).

“That was a little bit different than five or six nights ago,” Coach Roy Williams of UNC said. “Everything looks better when the ball goes in the basket.”

Likewise, there wouldn’t be another watered-down stat sheet for Paige, who finished with 10 points and three assists. Those aren’t eye-popping totals, though very acceptable during a victory.

“I said jokingly to my teammates that ‘I’m back, guys,’” Paige said. “I know I haven’t been playing the way I’m capable of playing.… Maybe this will get me going.”

Perhaps his heroics will be the catalyst Paige needs to return to the style of play that earned him second-team all-America and first-team all-ACC honors last season. Those efforts have been scattered so far during his junior year thanks to persistent plantar fasciitis in his right foot and other obstacles that can materialize as the season builds steam.

Only time will tell if Saturday will be a springboard, and the first test will be Wednesday at N.C. State. What is certain –– what everyone who drinks Carolina Blue Kool-Aid should now realize if they didn’t already –– is that UNC is impotent, if not heartless, without Paige.

Steadying influence

Body language shifted on the court and along the sideline depending upon where he was Saturday. The Tar Heels were a lifeless bunch while he was in the locker room having his twisted right ankle taped, about a three-minute span of game time that began with 10:30 remaining and saw UNC trail by as many as 13 points.

It wasn’t a Willis Reed-moment and Paige wasn’t stepping back into the arena to face Wilt Chamberlain, but UNC’s spine obviously stiffened when he gingerly re-entered with Louisville leading 63-55.

Offensive sets didn’t collapse as quickly with Paige on the floor, even if he was constantly dwarfed by defenders. And the Tar Heels never seemed on the verge of imploding regardless how emphatically or quickly the Cardinals responded to a UNC score. Even a limping Paige kept the Tar Heels’ train headed in a positive direction, the proof being UNC’s 22-8 game-ending run.

And Paige, a lithe 6-2, was already hobbling from pain that has lingered and reduced his practice time for more than two weeks. Pregame treatments featuring ice, heat and massages that work “up the chain” to alleviate pressure on his right foot upward to his hip can only do so much. The best medicine, he said, is rest and in-game adrenaline.

Rest, on Saturday, wasn’t an option even when the trainers and coaching staff gave him the choice. Nearly a week’s worth of social-media criticism he’d consumed after falling short against Notre Dame removed sitting out down the stretch against Louisville as an option.

“I heard people talking that I shouldn’t be the one shooting that ball, this and that,” Paige said. “It dwells on you a bit, especially when you’re as competitive as I am. It feels good that those people now have some new material.”

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