Marcus Paige might not always get off to the best start, but the North Carolina guard is quickly cementing his reputation as one of the best closers in college basketball.
Paige scored 31 points after halftime, including a game-winning layup with 0.9 seconds remaining on the clock, as the No. 19 Tar Heels escaped Raleigh with a 85-84 overtime victory over rival North Carolina State on Wednesday.
The final play was a carbon copy of something Paige has done so many times this season. Dribbling the ball at the top of the key with time expiring, Paige pounded the ball to the floor with his left hand and rose up between two defenders to kiss a clutch layup off the glass and into the basket.
North Carolina (21-7, 11-4 ACC) has won 10 straight and is the hottest team other than Virginia in the ACC. The Tar Heels, one of the more unpredictable elite squads throughout this season, are currently tied with rival Duke in the loss column for third place in the conference standings.
Paige, who had been entirely nondescript throughout the first half, finished with a team-high 35 points. He hit all seven of the Tar Heels' three-pointers and matched the Wolfpack's overall team total. N.C. State's upset bid was led by forward T.J. Warren, whose game-high 36 points kept the Wolfpack in the game throughout and made for a scintillating battle—one that at times felt like a one-on-one matchup.
"It was quite a scoring exhibition by both of us," Paige told reporters. "It would be a knock to say that my teammates weren't giving it their all, but at the same time, two great shot-makers were making a lot of shots."
For both players, the game was about opportunity—ones missed, ones made. And Warren especially might be left thinking about the one point he left on the rim.
After drawing a foul on James Michael McAdoo with eight seconds remaining in overtime and the game tied at 83-83, Warren went to the free-throw line for two shots. He clanked the first. Even though he put the Wolfpack ahead one by knocking down the second, that first miss allowed North Carolina to complete its second torrid comeback of the evening.
The Tar Heels trailed by eight at halftime, as many as 11 in the game and six at different points in overtime. But every time N.C. State was on the precipice of putting it away, Roy Williams' squad battled its way back. A Warren jumper made it 82-76 with 1:35 remaining in overtime, but Paige pulled up 10 seconds later from three and made it a one-possession game.
North Carolina never led in overtime until Paige's layup and spent almost the entire night at PNC Arena trailing. Locking down on the defensive interior, N.C. State held the Heels to just 26 points in the first half. Though the Wolfpack's offense was almost entirely carried by three players—Warren, Ralston Turner and Beejay Anya scored 62 of the team's 84 points—strong efforts from Jordan Vandenberg and Co. in the middle made life difficult for UNC.
McAdoo was only 2-of-11 from the field and scored eight points. Kennedy Meeks fell two points shy of a double-double, but he was also 3-of-7 from the field and struggled to get his shot off. N.C. State blocked 10 shots, with Vandenberg and Kyle Washington leading the way with four apiece.
"I think my teammates and I both knew, the way the game was going, the ball needed to be in my hands, whether I was going to shoot it myself or try to make something else happen," Paige said. "Once I saw a window, the rest is history."
The only consistently effective big was J.P. Tokoto, who finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Tokoto also did an excellent job of defending Warren in the first half, holding him to 3-of-10 from the field. Warren and the Wolfpack offense got going when Tokoto had to leave the floor due to a hand injury in the second half. Though he returned, trainers worked with him throughout the overtime period due to cramps as well.
That allowed Warren, who scores an ACC-best 23.3 points per game, to go off. He's scored 30 points in back-to-back games for the second time this season, and has a streak of 11 straight games with at least 20 points.
For the Wolfpack (17-11, 7-8 ACC), this loss is doubly frustrating. Not only did they allow an upset against a rival slip through their hands, but Wednesday night may have been their last best chance to improve their NCAA tournament resume before the conference tournament. N.C. State has home gimmes against Miami and Boston College sandwiched between a road trip to Pittsburgh, a victory that would have looked far better a couple weeks ago than now.
With an RPI of 54 and an 0-7 record against the 50 best teams, odds are against Mark Gottfried's squad making its third straight Big Dance. If the Wolfpack ultimately wind up in the NIT, they'll look back at games like this and wonder what could have been. As noted by Pack Pride, late losses aren't exactly a new thing for this team:
That's the third league loss that NC State suffers while leading with under 10 seconds to go. Ouch.— Pack Pride (@PackPride) February 27, 2014
North Carolina has to feel like it can chalk this one up to karma. The Heels have had their own string of bad luck this season, some of it self-created and some due to bad timing. Where other games have come down to blown free throws, UNC hit its final 10 in the second half and overtime to maximize its point total.
It wasn't the best game. It wasn't the least stressful. It rarely is with this team.
But with 10 straight victories and Paige's heroics leading the way, the Tar Heels are finding themselves at the perfect time.
North Carolina stays on the road but shouldn't have nearly as much trouble when it plays Virginia Tech on Saturday. N.C. State, meanwhile, has a struggling Miami (Fla.) squad on its schedule earlier that afternoon.
The Hurricanes and Hokies have a combined seven ACC victories this season.
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