North Carolina Tar Heels sophomore guard Marcus Paige scored 23 points in the second half to power the Tar Heels (7-2) past the Kentucky Wildcats, 82-77, at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C. Paige went 10-for-10 from the free-throw line, a welcome sight for a North Carolina team that has struggled from the line for much of the season. Even on Saturday, everyone other than Paige only shot 16-for-35 from the line (45.7 percent). Paige was also a standout in a glacially-paced game that featured 88 total free throws (and 33 misses).
Paige got a head start on his excellent second half in the final seconds of the opening 20 minutes when, after a foul call on Kentucky (8-3) sophomore forward Willie Cauley-Stein (his third personal foul), Wildcats head coach John Calipari picked up a technical foul. Paige, who hadn’t scored in the game to that point, hit the two technical free throws with 1.9 seconds left in the half. James Michael McAdoo (20 points, five rebounds, four assists) then hit 1-of-2 on the Cauley-Stein foul, giving North Carolina a 33-30 lead at halftime.
In a game that featured numerous could-be All-Americans and high school standouts, Paige was the best player on the floor in the second half. He beat the Kentucky defense multiple times on baseline drives for baskets, getting by his man on the dribble and then getting to the rim quickly enough that Wildcats defenders such as Cauley-Stein, Julius Randle and Alex Poythress weren’t able to rotate and stop the shot.
Despite his 23 points on the afternoon, Paige’s signature play in the win was probably an assist. After Paige made a shot to give North Carolina a 70-65 lead, Kentucky’s Andrew Harrison (17 points, six rebounds, seven assists) missed a three-pointer and Tar Heels forward Brice Johnson got the rebound. He sent an outlet pass to Paige, who, with a Kentucky defender leaping at him, threw the ball up for an alley-oop that Johnson thunderously finished to make it a seven-point game with 1:18 remaining.
Paige then continued to be Kentucky’s worst enemy down the stretch, hitting 6-of-6 free throws to keep North Carolina in the lead. The last two put the game away after Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison (20 points) hit a three-pointer with 10 seconds left to cut the Tar Heels lead to 80-77.
Paige entered the game as North Carolina’s only legitimate three-point threat, but he was only 1-for-5 from outside Saturday. But Paige was 5-for-8 from inside the three-point arc, added a couple rebounds, couple assists and three key steals. While much of the talk entering the game was on all the great young players for Kentucky, Paige outplayed all of them in the second half and was the main key to the North Carolina victory.
Saturday marked the fourth time this year that Paige had scored at least 23 points in a game (his high was 32 in North Carolina’s win over Louisville). The perfect 10 performance from the free-throw line was no surprise, since Paige has only missed five free throws the entire season. Paige is shooting 89.8 percent from the line now for the season.
With guards Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston still unavailable due to eligibility issues, North Carolina had to have someone step up in order to beat a quality team like Kentucky. Paige did that in a big way, giving the Tar Heels their third win over a top-11 ranked team on the season (the No. 3 Louisville Cardinals and No. 1 Michigan State Spartans were the others).
Paige’s play, and that of McAdoo, who scored 20 points while taking only six shots from the field, is exactly what North Carolina fans want to see while holding out hope that McDonald and Hairston will return soon, making North Carolina much more of the powerhouse that has beaten Kentucky, Louisville and Michigan State, not the team that lost to the Belmont Bruins and UAB Blazers.
Paige and the Tar Heels are next in action Wednesday at home against the Texas Longhorns.