North Carolina's Marcus Paige and Leslie McDonald after Paige's game-winning lay-up against NC State.
No. 19 North Carolina may have started ACC conference play in what seemed like a downward spiral (1-4), but the Tar Heels have turned a corner with 10 straight wins, including overcoming three second-half deficits over Florida State, Duke and North Carolina State. Now shooting 54.4 percent from the field in the second half (and overtime), the Tar Heels are coming alive.
Why the sudden surge?
Marcus Paige and Leslie McDonald.
The dominant duo have not only contributed huge offensive points for the Tar Heels, but more importantly, Paige and McDonald have built momentum from the backcourt to help lead UNC to its 10th straight win, the longest winning streak since the 2008-09 national title season. And the rest of the team is responding.
In Wednesday night’s matchup with rival North Carolina State, Paige provided the game-winning shot by hitting a driving basket with 0.9 seconds left in overtime to cap a career night and help the Tar Heels beat the Wolfpack 85-84. Paige finished with 35 points—31 after halftime—to topple the league’s leading scorer, T.J. Warren, who posted a career-high 36 points.
After coming back from a six-point deficit with less than two minutes left in overtime, the Tar Heels clawed back to win in a rival showdown that saw seven lead changes and seven ties after halftime.
“You appreciate the back and forth, but you appreciate it more by winning,” said McDonald according to Aaron Beard in The Associated Press (via GoHeels.com). “We just had to dig deep, and we drew up plays, and Marcus took us to the promised land.”
The Tar Heels have definitely been digging deep, starting from the backcourt presence of McDonald and Paige. McDonald started the season shooting 8-for-31 over four games, but the senior has turned things around, posting 14-for-21 in the wins over Duke and Wake Forest. Even after an off day with just two points against NC State, McDonald credits his team for staying tough.
“You can say that prior to the beginning of the season, we didn’t have the mental toughness to get through something like this,” said McDonald according to C.L. Brown in ESPN. “We probably would have laid there and died, but we didn’t give up.”
Prior to the win over NC State, McDonald posted six three-pointers in the games against Duke and Wake Forest, which were as many as he made in the previous month of February combined.
Paige has exploded, as well. The sophomore guard has taken control to lead the Tar Heels in second-half comeback victories. Against Florida State, Paige scored 16 of his 20 points in the second half, and in the win over Duke, he scored all 13 of his points after halftime.
In the win over NC State, Paige was 2-for-6 with four points at halftime and missed both of his three-pointers, but in the second half, he helped the Tar Heels erase a nine-point deficit by going 5-of-7 from three-point range, scoring 21 points and topping it off with 10 in overtime.
“The little fella was just off the charts,” head coach Roy Williams said according to Brown. “Marcus did not play very well in the first half but in the second half that’s about as good as an exhibition as I’ve ever seen.”
With Paige leading UNC to victory through struggling moments and McDonald making big-time shots from all corners, the Tar Heels have every reason to believe heading into the NCAA tournament.