North Carolina has to play like P.J. Hairston is never setting foot on the court again. The reality on Sunday—that Hairston was back in Chapel Hill and the No. 24 Heels were seven days removed from losing to Belmont—made a win over the defending national champs seem like a pipe dream.
Then Marcus Paige made that pipe dream come true.
Paige was brilliant in a role he may have never played this year if Hairston hadn't gotten behind the wheel of all those rental cars. With a career-high 32 points, Paige, the scorer, drove his team to a 93-84 win in Sunday's Hall of Fame Tip-Off title game over third-ranked Louisville.
That surpassed the career high of 26 he had set the day before against Richmond.
How times have changed in seven days.
The hope back in spring when Roy Williams had Hairston and James Michael McAdoo returning was that Paige could be a similar player to former UNC point guard Kendall Marshall, a left-handed distributor who occasionally knocked down open shots.
Once the Belmont loss happened, the hope was that Paige could be a lefty like Manu Ginobili, a slithering driver who finds a way to make an assortment of runs and knocks down momentum-changing jumpers.
It was just that. A hope.
After Sunday, the Heels could be banking on that version of Paige being closer to the real thing.
"I'm trying to stay in attack mode the entire time," Paige said after the game, per the AP. "That makes our team harder to guard and frees up the big guys. I'm one of the leaders on this team so I feel the need to provide some outside scoring. I'm the only one who attempts 3-pointers pretty much."
Paige matched shots with Louisville star Russ Smith early on. Smith had 22 in the first half. Paige's three-pointer at the first-half buzzer—an extremely difficult shot he made running to his right off the dribble—tied the game, gave the sophomore guard 17 points at halftime, and left UNC tied with the defending champs.
Then in the second half, Paige had Smith trying to match him.
The Cardinals and Smith were in panic mode and playing hero ball. They finished the day with just eight assists.
Paige was in cruise control because he had plenty of help.
Freshman Kennedy Meeks had 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. Sophomore Brice Johnson had 13 points, five rebounds and two blocks. (Side note: Williams might want to considering playing those two more than the 10.8 and 19.8 minutes, respectively, that they averaged coming into the game.)
Even Nate Britt finally looked comfortable as Paige's replacement at point guard. Britt played better than the score book shows (nine points, five assists and four turnovers).
The Heels were a flawed team last week when they lost to Belmont, and 26 missed free throws sure accentuates a few flaws.
A win against Louisville does not change the fact that they're still a flawed team.
Paige has made 17 of 32 threes this season. He made three of six against the Cardinals. The rest of the team is 2-of-18 on the year and went 0-of-1 against Louisville.
The absence of a second shooter will be an issue against teams that guard Carolina the right way by taking away Paige's looks and making the rest of the Heels beat them from outside.
Hairston, of course, could make that approach obsolete by giving the Heels the second shooter they need.
But the possibility of Hairston never playing again seems more real by the day. CBSSports.com's Gary Parrish wrote Saturday that "optimism has waned as it pertains to Hairston."
What Marcus Paige and his teammates showed on Sunday is that they're creating their own identity without Hairston.
Yeah, the Heels may be flawed, but led by Paige the scorer, they can be really good, too.