CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- No. 18 North Carolina knocked off No. 5 Louisville 72-71 in a thriller, a back-and-forth game between two good teams that came down to the last shot. Ultimately, North Carolina -- and, more accurately, preseason ACC Player of the Year Marcus Paige -- made one more play when it counted, but these two teams showed why they'll be competing for the ACC crown alongside upper-echelon teams like No. 3 Virginia and No. 2 Duke, too.
Oh, and it was the biggest win of the season for North Carolina coming at a time when the Tar Heels desperately needed it.
Against Notre Dame, North Carolina (12-4) had to rally back from a deficit, and the Tar Heels did that, but they came up one play short. The end-of-game execution left a lot to be desired, and the Tar Heels made just one of their final 14 field-goal attempts, not to mention missing their last eight shots.
Paige, the one everyone knew would get the ball when it counted, was ultimately more of a decoy (though he was an option) on the Tar Heels' final play in that game -- but he had to heave up a desperation shot that had little chance. It didn't go in.
After that loss to Notre Dame on Monday, Paige limped to the postgame news conference and told reporters he'd been dealing with a lingering foot issue that's limited him in practice. (That issue, as his coach Roy Williams would reveal after the game, is plantar fasciitis.) He stepped on Louisville's Montrezl Harrell and tweaked the foot in the second half about midway through Saturday's game and ran straight to the locker room. The Tar Heels were down by 10 when he went out, and it didn't look good. Paige was lying on the training table and getting updates from video coordinator Eric Hoots, trying to do all he could to get back to normal so he could go back in the game.
"I knew I was going to give it a go no matter what, unless I got off the table and wasn't able to move at all," Paige said. "I knew if I taped it up tight enough, I could get through these last 7-8 minutes and then just limp around tomorrow. But that's just my mentality."
When he ran back to the locker room, Carolina scored a quick basket, but after that, Louisville (13-2) went on a 5-0 run over the span of a little over a minute to go up by 13 with 8:43 to go. Paige came back out to the bench a few minutes of game action later, and a key 3-pointer from freshman Joel Berry had cut the deficit to eight. But Louisville went back up 10 with 7:02 to go. It looked like any effort UNC could make would again be too little, too late.
Then Paige hit a quick three-pointer to cut it to seven with 6:19 to go. Ultimately, he helped lead the team on a 17-6 run, and assisting on the first go-ahead basket with 39 seconds left.
After Louisville's Terry Rozier hit a jumper with 26 seconds left, UNC got the ball back with 24 to go after a timeout and had time to set up a play. Paige's mind went to Monday night. He got a screen from Kennedy Meeks off a box set, then a second Meeks screen off UNC's freelance offense had him matched up with Louisville's big man, Chinanu Onuaku.
He recognized it immediately, drove on him and scooped up an underhanded high shot off the backboard that fell in with nine seconds left.
Paige was 2 of 3 for five points and had two assists in the final seven minutes. In the first 33:41, he had five points on 2 of 9 shooting, one assist and four turnovers. He knows this isn't a cure-all for him and his personal struggles, by any means. But he hit late-game, clutch shots last season and throughout his career, and maybe this can help get him going.
"I said it jokingly to my teammates that I'm back. 'I'm back, guys.' I know I haven't been playing the way I'm capable of playing. You guys know that. It's pretty well-documented at this point. I need to play better," Paige said. "Even tonight, I didn't play well at all. ... But my teammates still have a lot of confidence in me and I still have a lot of confidence in myself, so maybe this will get me going."
Paige said he's going to have to play through the pain of his plantar fasciitis -- the only thing that can really cure it as rest, and he said the adrenaline carries him during games -- but the Tar Heels finally won a game against a really good team in spite of not playing their best and one that they had to rally from behind and show toughness. Collectively, Paige hopes that they can build off that.
"I think it can be really frustrating to lose a bunch of close games in a row," Paige said. "Notre Dame got up and we made it interesting, made a run, got it close but we didn't win. So to finally get one is a building block for this team. It hopefully should give us confidence that despite things not going smoothly, that you can still get a win.
"It was a big win for us, and I can't deny it or play that off. We needed this one."
2. North Carolina's bigs had their best game, collectively, of the season
Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson heard it from their coach all week. They weren't tough enough. They were too inconsistent. And when the Tar Heels had to go small against Notre Dame to make that comeback, it wasn't just because they matched up poorly against a Notre Dame team whose 4-man is 6 feet 5. It was also because they weren't exploiting their mismatches on the other end.
Meeks and Johnson finished with a combined 6 of 19 shooting against a shorter Notre Dame team and had nine combined rebounds. They played a total of 44 minutes, too, because they were not effective (and limited by foul trouble).
In UNC's losses, the two have been not as good. It's not rocket science, and they both know they need to play better. But they heard it from their coach in the days leading up to Louisville.
"(Williams) was just really disappointed in the way that we've been playing lately. He said we need to play a lot better than what we have. He said we can potentially be the best big-man duo in the country if we just come out and be ready to play on both ends, because he knows we can do it on the offensive end," Johnson said. "Me and Kennedy had a talk and we just wanted to be able to do the little things, because the little things is what's been hurting us. It's been keeping us out of the game and hurting our team at the same time.
"Some games, me and him play offensively great and defensively we're somewhat OK. But then we had some games where we're just awful. We just can't have those."
And in this game, they didn't. Louisville's defense, particularly on the interior, is no joke. The Cardinals are third in the nation defensively per statistician Ken Pomeroy and allow teams to shoot just 40 percent from inside the arc. They also are one of the better rebounding teams in the country, particularly on the offensive boards.
But Meeks and Johnson combined for 24 points on 9 of 18 shooting to go with 17 rebounds, a far cry from their effort against Notre Dame. Johnson in particular was fantastic, limiting Louisville star forward Montrezl Harrell to nine points and just five rebounds.
"Brice was very tough tonight on the boards. Offensively, he was getting after (Harrell). He just made it tough for him," UNC's J.P. Tokoto said. "Although Harrell does have long arms and great body strength, Brice beat him up a little bit, which is what we need. He always talks about being an enforcer, so it's time he showed it and he did today."
It's all well and good they did it this time, but Johnson and Meeks -- both, or at least one -- absolutely have to keep doing it.
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