The North Carolina Tar Heels marched into the Breslin Center and played harder, smarter and got solid play from a variety of players as they upset the No. 1 ranked Michigan State Spartans 79-65 tonight in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge.
The Tar Heels have struggled to find their identity so far this season. They have beat a ranked Louisville this season, but have also lost to Belmont and UAB. Tonight they played like the team that beat Louisville and it was no one player who shined. It was a collective effort that showed how lethal this Carolina team can be once suspended players P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald reinstated.
The Tar Heels had five players in double figures in the contest. Marcus Paige struggled shooting the ball, but he hit big shots and was a steady force handling the basketball. He finished with 13 points. Starters J.P. Tokoto and Nate Britt chipped in 12 and 13 points, respectively. The freshman Britt was especially huge stepping to the line late in the game and knocking down four foul shots as the Spartans tried to close the gap.
It was two players off the bench that really pushed the Tar Heels to the next level tonight. Freshman Kennedy Meeks was a beast down low. He was the leading scorer for Carolina scoring 15 points off 6-8 shooting and seven rebounds in only 18 minutes. He scored on the low block and off putbacks and his length affected the Spartans as they tried to score around the rim.
Brice Johnson was the other guy that gave Roy Williams big minutes tonight. He scored 14 points on 6-11 shooting and added six rebounds and two blocks. It was evident tonight how much the strength he has added since last season has helped take his game to the next level. He battled for rebounds and scored while going into defenders strong while inviting the contact instead of shying away from it like he did often last season.
This balanced attack will serve the Tar Heels well as the season goes on. They did not even get a great game out of James Michael McAdoo, who finished with eight points on 3-11 shooting. The balanced attack takes pressure off Paige, who has been called upon to become much more of a scorer then he rather be. Paige is at his best using his quickness and decision making to excel in the pick n’ roll as well as scoring the basketball when the opportunity presents itself.
If everyone around Paige plays and contributes like they did tonight, then this team is a legit contender to win the ACC when Hairston and McDonald are back playing. Hairston is one of the best scorers in the nation and teamed up with Paige this year will form one of the nation’s best backcourts. McDonald is a senior, who can score the basketball, but is someone who can lockdown most opposing guards.
It is always nice to upset a ranked team on the road, especially against the No. 1 ranked team in the nation, but the way North Carolina did it tonight bodes well for this team in the future.