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Retaliatory response

Marcus Paige didn’t need a reminder of his first game against N.C. State. The memories of his seven-point, three-turnover performance, in which he was admittedly rattled and dominated by Lorenzo Brown, were firmly lodged in his mind.

Marcus Paige scored 11 of his 14 second-half points in the final 7 minutes, 15 seconds.

North Carolina coach Roy Williams didn’t have to tell him that another such effort would give the Tar Heels little to no chance of winning. Paige knew.

So, before Saturday’s matchup at the Smith Center, Paige confidently told P.J. Hairston that this would be a different game, that UNC would answer each N.C. State run, and that there would be no repeat of the 28-point lead the Wolfpack built the last time.

The freshman delivered on his promise. Despite a scoreless first half, Paige scored 14 second-half points — including 11 in the final 7:15 — to lead the Tar Heels to an emotionally charged 76-65 win over the Wolfpack.

“I wanted to respond to the way I played over there. Brown is a great player, and he really dominated the game over at N.C. State, and I wanted to make sure I did whatever I could to not let him do that again,” Paige said. “That was our mindset that, hey, we remember what happened last time, and that’s not going to happen again.”

Paige’s mastery of the matchup began with 13:25 remaining in the game. UNC had seized control of the contest throughout the first half and built a 10-point lead early in the second, but the Wolfpack had stormed back and grabbed its first lead in 10 minutes of play.

Williams, in a fit of fury, yanked out all five players on the court, thus sending out Paige with seldom-used teammates Luke Davis, Desmond Hubert, Jackson Simmons and J.P. Tokoto.

Despite the obvious mismatch this lineup produced, Paige made a 3-pointer and helped the Tar Heels stay competitive for the two minutes that group was on the floor.

Minutes later, with UNC’s starters back on the court, Paige drained a 3-pointer in transition to give the Tar Heels a two-point lead — a lead that was never relinquished.

The deep ball came on the fast break following a James Michael McAdoo steal. It’s also one that he wouldn’t have shot just a couple weeks ago.

“Every time he passes to me, he tells me not to hesitate and shoot. We were in transition, and I told him not to ever hesitate if you’re going to tell me not to hesitate,” junior Reggie Bullock said. “So, he pulled up and knocked it down. His confidence just started building from there.”

That three helped start a 22-6 run on which UNC concluded the game until Williams substituted the walk-ons for the final seconds.

Paige sealed the win when he came up with a steal then completed an and-one on the other end. His eighth and final assist came two possessions later, when he found Bullock for a 3-pointer that put the Tar Heels ahead by 11.

Just for good measure, Paige scored five more points in the closing minutes to plant the stamp on his statement game. He finished with the best stat line of his young career: 14 points, three steals, three rebounds and eight assists with zero turnovers.

“My little freshman is a tough little nut. He’s getting better and better as we go along,” Williams said. “Marcus Paige made some big baskets for us in the second half … particularly after he played so poorly over in Raleigh. And, he knew that. I didn’t say one word to him about needing to play better than he did in the first game.”

Paige joked after the game that he’s not quite sure what “tough little nut” means, but it probably alludes to the maturity and confidence he’s gained throughout the course of ACC play.

McAdoo cited Paige’s timely 3-pointer as the moment that triggered UNC’s killer instinct down the stretch.

“Once he took those five out, and Marcus hit that big shot, it let us know that we have to go out there and turn it up to win,” McAdoo said.

The growth of Paige’s toughness and maturity is a microcosm of how the Tar Heels have developed through the past several games.

UNC has won three games in a row, including six of the last eight, and is now a near lock for the NCAA Tournament after posting the best win of the season. It’s not just the results that have changed, though, but rather the way the Tar Heels have played the game.

UNC played with more emotion than it had all year. Hairston and Paige each took turns screaming into the courtside student risers following momentum-swinging plays. When Bullock hit his final 3-pointer from the top of the key, he spun to his right and belted out a scream while running down the court. Even the even-keeled McAdoo smacked the court following Paige’s second-half and-one hoop.

“We knew when we showed up today that we had to play with a chip on our shoulder and play with confidence right from the tip,” McAdoo said. “We just went out there and played our hearts out.”

Bullock, who led the Tar Heels with 22 points and 13 rebounds, said the Tar Heels are “more hungry” now than they were earlier in the season. Williams said his team is playing with a better sense of urgency— something he’s preached all year — and that a change in attitude is the reason for his team’s surge toward the end of the season.

At the root of everything working in UNC’s favor is Paige. His development has transformed the Tar Heels from a team with a shaky freshman point guard to a team with five legitimate scoring threats on the floor.

“We have a high ceiling if we play the way we played tonight — compete hard and play defense,” Paige said. “If we keep playing the way we are and keep playing as a team, I’m not sure you can put a ceiling on what we can do come March.”

Shortly after making that statement, Paige retired from the players’ lounge and retreated back into the locker room, a little bit more swagger in his step and a little bit tougher of a nut.

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