The Kentucky Wildcats may have entered the 2013-14 college basketball season with national headlines, ambitious (and hyperbolic) 40-0 predictions and national title aspirations, but North Carolina was clearly the better team in Chapel Hill on Saturday.
The Tar Heels knocked off John Calipari’s talented freshmen to the tune of 82-77 in a game that wouldn’t have been that close if North Carolina didn’t miss 19 free throws. It marked Kentucky’s third loss of the young season and proved that the Wildcats still need to improve some things if a Final Four trip is in the cards.
As for the Tar Heels, the victory over Kentucky was a coming-out party for guard Marcus Paige on the national stage. The sophomore tallied 23 points, recorded three steals and, perhaps most importantly, made all 10 of his free throws to lead North Carolina to its third marquee win of the season.
Paige and company can also count wins over Michigan State and Louisville on the resume, and conference play hasn’t even started yet. What makes that even more impressive is that superstar P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald are still sitting out due to NCAA eligibility concerns, leaving the Heels notably shorthanded against these elite squads.
Paige may not have been the nationally recognized name that Hairston and even teammate James Michael McAdoo were before the season, but he is quickly turning himself into a legitimate superstar at the collegiate level. His performance against the Wildcats was far from a one-game fluke.
He scored 13 points, dished out five assists, grabbed five rebounds and tallied two steals (while only turning the ball over once) against Michigan State. Then he dazzled against Louisville’s formidable defense with 32 points behind 9-of-12 shooting and a perfect 11-of-11 from the free-throw line.
Will North Carolina make the Final Four?
On the season, he is averaging nearly 20 points a game and is almost automatic from the charity stripe. What’s more, he is an imposing player on both ends of the floor, which can’t be said of every collegiate superstar.
Paige’s overall numbers against Kentucky will stand out to those checking box scores in the near future, but his leadership and emergence during times of adversity for this North Carolina program are more important. His 21 second-half points when the game was on the line personify the way he has stepped up for the Tar Heels with Hairston and McDonald on the sidelines.
CBS Sports’ Jon Rothstein recognized just how valuable Paige has been during adversity by inspiring his team when its back is against the wall:
Marcus Paige has been terrific in the second half. UNC again rising to the occasion. Another inspiring performance by the Tarheels.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 15, 2013
If we are to assume that Hairston will return this season, head coach Roy Williams will have a daunting trio in Paige, Hairston and Michael McAdoo. It may have been Kentucky with the Final Four hopes entering the season, but don’t be surprised if North Carolina challenges for a spot at the sport’s grandest table in March.
Follow and interact with Bleacher Report writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.