Marcus Paige has heard the playful jokes from his teammates. He’s heard the “second-half Marcus” nickname. He’s heard the countless questions from reporters.
The North Carolina guard often doesn’t have an answer for them. And he didn’t have one again Thursday night after another difficult first half.
But he didn’t need one.
He had already answered in the most significant way possible — on the court — when the Tar Heels needed him the most.
After posting a scoreless first half , Paige scored 13 points in the second — seven in the final five minutes and 30 seconds.
With No. 5 Duke in the lead for the majority of the contest, Paige willed UNC to a 74-66 win in the waning moments.
He closed a game that was supposed to be played eight days ago, providing a volcanic finish to the anxious anticipation that had bubbled along Tobacco Road and that came to roaring fruition in the Smith Center crowd.
“That’s probably the loudest, craziest environment I’ve been in — home or away,” Paige said. “And obviously that helps when we’re making the run an the place just erupts. It make you play with more passion and really try to get it done.”
With the victory, the Tar Heels (19-7,9-4 ACC) extended their winning streak to eight straight, putting an exclamation point on a late-season climb up the ACC standings. They also became the first team to beat the top four teams in the preseason AP poll.
But much like UNC’s last two wins against Pittsburgh and Florida State, it was a dogfight.
Perhaps buoyed by the crowd, the Tar Heels got off to a surging start, going on a 6-0 game opening run as the Blue Devils struggled to find their footing.
But UNC couldn’t contain Duke’s two-headed monster of Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker for long.
Hood at one point in the first half scored nine points in a matter of three minutes, as the Blue Devils took a 18-12 lead and the air out of UNC’s sails.
With the exception of Leslie McDonald, who scored 21 points in one of his best shooting nights of the season, not much fell UNC’s way throughout the first half.
The Tar Heels were seven of 14 from the free-throw line, and players not named Leslie McDonald shot six for 18.
“Well, we certainly played a lot better in the second half,” coach Roy Williams said. “A few minutes there both teams were fighting so hard, it wasn’t very pretty.”
Still, the Tar Heels trailed by just seven, 37-30, going into halftime . And though the Blue Devils led for the majority of the game, the margin never approached double-digits in the second half as UNC continued to nip at their heels.
Paige provided the final push.
With 5:30 left, he buried a 3-pointer that trimmed the Duke lead to 57-56.
And after McDonald gave North Carolina a 62-60 lead with 3:54 left, Paige buried the Blue Devils, driving inside to score back to back buckets and to push the lead to 66-62 with 1:30 remaining.
“I really didn’t want to have (a negative) impact on this game,” Paige said. “I wanted to make a positive impact. My teammates are looking for me to make plays. Everyone was telling me in the locker room, ‘Keep your head up, keep your head up. We need you.’
“And I just stepped up and got aggressive and decided I would be a participant in the game.”
After snow postponed the game last Wednesday, UNC proved the matchup was worth the wait.
It was worth waiting eight days, and for the Tar Heels, it was worth waiting for Marcus Paige.
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