J.P. Tokoto sets stage for Marcus Paige in matchup against N.C. State

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RALEIGH — Before North Carolina guard Marcus Paige could pull the curtain closed on T.J. Warren’s convincing audition for ACC Player of the Year, J.P. Tokoto was there to set up up the lighting just right for Paige’s spectacular finish.

But Tokoto nearly missed the grand finale.

Tokoto, who scored 16 points in No. 19 UNC’s 85-84 win, spent the last several minutes of overtime in the locker room with cramping in his leg and wrist, which he injured on one of his two first-half dunks.

He returned to the floor just in time to see Warren’s missed free throw with seven seconds left in overtime — and to watch Paige nearly incite a riot among the Raleigh crowd with a game-winning layup.

Paige said Tokoto, who was prepared to return for a second overtime, was crucial to helping him score.

“When he’s aggressive and attacking the basket we’re a better offensive team,” Paige said. “We don’t have to rely on me as much to take contested jump shots or James Michael (McAdoo) to force things in the post.”

In the first half, Tokoto led UNC with eight points. When Paige nearly jumped over the scorer’s table to save a loose ball with five minutes left in the first half, Tokoto was there to throw down one of his signature dunks, and breathe life into a reeling UNC team, cutting N.C. State’s lead from 11 to nine.

“I think it was huge for us,” said McAdoo, whose 2-for-11 effort left a void for Tokoto. “Especially just to have a guy like him that’s so versatile and can do things such as make those emphatic dunks kind of provides energy for us, especially in a game like today when we’re on the road, not many people are cheering for us, and we were kind of at a point in the game where we didn’t really have much energy.”

Tokoto was certainly versatile, adding 10 rebounds and five assists to his 16 points. The forward assisted Paige on three second-half 3-pointers, including one with 5:47 left to give UNC a 56-55 lead.

N.C. State’s Jordan Vandenberg wrestled back an N.C. State lead with a thunderous put-back dunk, but Tokoto followed with two baskets to give UNC a late 3-point lead.

On the second of the two, Tokoto came to Paige’s aid after Paige’s shot had been blocked.

Tokoto would spend the rest of the second half alternating between sitting with a towel draped over his shoulder on the bench and fighting fatigue on the floor.

With 22 seconds remaining in the second half, Tokoto charged at the rim where 7-foot-1 center Vandenberg awaited him like a dragon guarding his castle.

Tokoto managed a shot around the imposing Vandenberg, but it rattled around the rim and into the hands of the less imposing 5-foot-11 Tyler Lewis.

He missed another layup in overtime before subbing out with 3:27 left, but he had given Paige the support he needed to mount a comeback, and Paige wouldn’t squander his effort.

“We were struggling as a team early on, so I looked in the first half just keep attacking, and it worked. It kept us in the game,” Tokoto said. “Then, Marcus showed up.”

sports@dailytarheel.com

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