JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Brice Johnson had a little wisecrack for his point guard after they returned to the locker room following the North Carolina men’s basketball team’s 87-78 win over No. 5 seed Arkansas (27-9, 13-5 SEC) in the third round of the NCAA Tournament on Saturday night.
Johnson missed the side of Paige he saw in the final 20 minutes on the court at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.
It had been quite some time since he and others had seen the junior point guard’s alter-ego: The version of him that emerged several times last year, but that this season at times lacked.
“‘Oh, we saw a little 'Second-half Marcus' come out for the first time in a while,’” Johnson, a junior forward, says he joked with Paige. “It’s just real big. I’m proud of him for doing that. We really needed it.”
Paige finished the night with a team-high 22 points — 20 of which came in the second half — to keep the fourth-seeded Tar Heels’ national title run alive.
'Second-half Marcus' is back. And so is UNC (26-11, 11-7 ACC), into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2012. With the win, the Tar Heels advance to the regional semifinals and will face the winner of Sunday’s game between West Region No. 1 seed Wisconsin and No. 8 seed Oregon.
“It feels great. At North Carolina, the expectations are always to make deep runs and advance in the tournament,” Paige said. “My freshman year, we played Kansas, they were a No. 1 seed and lost. Sophomore year, we had a great opportunity — lost to Iowa State, a great team. This year, you know, we finally got over that hump. Arkansas’ a great team, athletic, strong, physical. But we played Carolina basketball tonight. We weren’t perfect, but it was good enough to get us to the Sweet 16 and it feels good.”
The path to the Final Four, the Sweet 16 even, is a marathon, not a sprint. But don’t tell that to UNC or Arkansas — the two fastest teams in this year’s tournament field, according to data from college basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy.
On schedule, both teams came out fast Saturday night as UNC sought to run against Arkansas’ full-court press.
“We wanna run and get easy buckets. We feel like when a team presses us that’s welcoming us to get layups,” said sophomore guard Nate Britt, who finished the night with 10 points off the bench. “We always wanna make ‘em pay. Coach always says, ‘Make ‘em pay, make ‘em pay, make ‘em pay.’ I feel like early in the first half we struggled some knocking down some shots but after a while we got it going.”
The Tar Heels started the game 2-for-10 from the field despite ultimately taking a 39-36 halftime lead after shooting 16-for-40 from the floor in the first half.
“First of the game, they hit us right in the mouth and we stumbled a little bit,” Coach Roy Williams said.
But no player struggled more in the first half than Paige, who had only two points and was just 1-for-8 from the field, 0-for-3 from the 3-point line.
Eventually, 'Second-Half Marcus' was unleashed. The player that Johnson joked had been missing in action for a while started with a 3-pointer to put UNC ahead 54-52 with 13:25 left in the game.
Paige had 16 of UNC’s next 21 points over about an eight-minute span to give the Tar Heels their largest lead of the night at 75-63 with 5:38 left in the game.
“When you see him hit a deep 3 like he did in the second half, you can just kind of feel it coming,” Britt said. “You can feel that he’s getting locked in and that’s what he did tonight.”
Paige’s second-half performance fended off a 27-point, 10-rebound night from Arkansas guard Michael Qualls and an 18-point, 14-rebound effort from Arkansas forward and SEC Player of the Year Bobby Portis.
His late-game heroics made UNC’s foul trouble and lack of big men down the stretch a little easier to bear. Johnson and sophomore forward Isaiah Hicks each fouled out while sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks left the game with 3:15 to go after sustaining a left-knee sprain. His status for the Sweet 16 is currently unknown, said Williams after the game at the end of his press conference.
'Second-half Marcus' made it into Williams’ opening statement.
“I thought Marcus was sensational in the second half,” he said.
On Saturday, the Tar Heels advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in Paige's career.
“I don’t think we’re done,” he said. “We’ve got a little bit more left in the tank.”
Maybe 'Second-half Marcus' does, too.
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