Paige delivers strong second half in UNC win against Kentucky

The sophomore guard scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half.

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UNC defeated Kentucky 82-77 at the Dean Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. on Dec. 14.

Marcus Paige didn’t need coach Roy Williams to tell him that he was being too soft in the first half, that he was coasting, that he was — in his own words — a “non-factor.”

As Paige entered halftime of No. 18 North Carolina’s 82-77 win against No. 11 Kentucky on Saturday, he was 0-for-5 from the field and had just two points to his name. The Wildcats had locked in on him defensively — as most teams have done in recent games — and succeeded in removing UNC’s (7-2) lone 3-point threat from the game entirely.

But Kentucky couldn’t keep it up. The second half revealed a new, reenergized Marcus Paige.

“For this team to be successful, I got to be aggressive, whether that’s scoring or creating opportunities for other people or at least being active defensively,” Paige said. “So I just had to scratch that first half and had to come out with a new mindset.”

In the second half, the sophomore guard racked up three steals in the first seven minutes — each resulting in UNC points. He shot 6-for-8 and made 8-of-8 free throws, scoring 21 second-half points. And with UNC up by just three points with fewer than two minutes remaining, Paige dropped in a rainbow of a floater, then alley-ooped to Brice Johnson on the very next possession in a backbreaking, game-sealing, arena-rattling display.

Williams said he doesn’t normally like floaters — unless players can show him consistently that they can make them. But Paige said as he approached the baseline, he had no choice but to put the ball in the air. Kentucky (8-3) boasts a lengthy frontcourt, led by the 7-foot sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein, who entered the contest with 43 blocks to his name and swatted down five more shots Saturday night.

“He’s so good at blocking shots, his timing, his length, his athleticism,” Paige said. “I just knew I had to stop short and go to the floater.”

Kentucky’s physically imposing defense bottled up Paige for half of the evening and dominated UNC on the boards as well — holding a 44-32 rebound advantage. Eleven-point efforts from both J.P. Tokoto and James Michael McAdoo in the first half kept UNC in the contest, but the Tar Heels needed their backcourt leader to regain form and push past the Wildcats.

“Coach is always talking about ‘Go screen for Marcus, go screen for Marcus. Get him open’ because he’s our best 3-point shooter right now,” Johnson said. “We just have to screen for him a lot more because we knew people are going to key in on him and not let him get shots.”

Even still, Paige made just one 3-pointer on the night — one of just two for the Tar Heels. His perimeter game taken away, Paige instead harnessed his second-half energy in the form of slashes inside, quick drives to the basket and one floater that was everything his first half wasn’t — aggressive, unsafe, bold.

“Put it up there and pray for it,” Paige said. “That’s what I did.”

And that’s exactly what UNC needed.

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