In a game where the North Carolina men’s basketball team’s only scholarship senior, Dexter Strickland, put forth one of his strongest offensive performances of the season, it was a freshman that came through in the clutch.
In the final three minutes of UNC’s 79-76 ACC Tournament semifinal win against Maryland, Marcus Paige scored five pivotal points to help the Tar Heels hold on.
The Terrapins had cut the North Carolina lead to just one point with three minutes to play when Paige made arguably the most clutch basket of his young career. After scanning for an open teammate and not finding one, Paige dropped in a 12-foot jumper on the baseline.
With just 36 seconds left in the game he made another big time floater to extend the lead to five.
“We were trying to get a great shot and things broke down, they were a couple of late clock situations so I felt like I had to try to make a play – be aggressive,” Paige said. “Our guys were covered so I just tried to be aggressive, take advantage of that opportunity. Yeah, I was on the bench for a while but I didn’t feel the need to come in and try to force the issue, I just kind of let the game come to me.”
Before Paige made the baseline bucket to keep UNC in front, he had been on the bench for more than six minutes. The point guard picked up his fourth foul midway through the second half and Williams was forced to entrust his offense to Strickland and Leslie McDonald.
Strickland was hot in the first half and had 11 points at the break but he cooled in the second half and finished with 15. For a while, with Paige on the bench, it looked as though Strickland was holding his own. The Tar Heel lead rose to 10 points and hovered there for about three minutes.
But the spread was five when Paige reentered the game and Terrapin center Alex Len quickly cut it down to three but Paige took care of things from there.
“I think they really did a nice job,” Williams said about Strickland and McDonald’s play in Paige’s absence. “We had one turnover and then Dexter tried to stop the fast break high and that added another mistake to the turnover he made. But other than that I think they did a good job handling the ball … Dexter missed two shots in a row when we ran the shot clock down but other than that he shot the ball well.”