RALEIGH, N.C. -- No. 15 North Carolina (13-4, 3-1 ACC) had to fight off a stiff challenge from a red-hot N.C. State team, but it ultimately did just that, winning 81-79 in its third straight close game. N.C. State dropped to 12-6 and 3-2 in league play, but emerged from a three-game stretch against ranked teams 1-2 with a big win over Duke, a close-ish game at Virginia and a hard-fought loss to North Carolina on its home court.
As usual, there was plenty of drama when these two in-state rivals get together.
Three-Point Take 1. Marcus Paige might be getting back on track
North Carolina's star junior burst onto the scene last year with the help of performances like the one he had at PNC Arena in an overtime win over the Wolfpack in a scoring duel with T.J. Warren.
He hasn't been the same player this year. He'd be the first to tell you that.
But after he made the game-winning shot against Louisville on Saturday, it seemed like it could be a springboard into this game.
As it would turn out, it was.
After Paige drained his first three-pointer at the 13:56 mark in the first half, he felt like it was going to be a good night.
"It felt good. They didn't come out on the ball screen, so I got a really good look to start the game and it rattled in," Paige said. "One of my other shots I got was wide open. After that, it's kind of a slippery slope for me."
More like a slippery slope for the opponent.
In the last two games at PNC Arena now, he's averaged 29.0 points on 17-of-31 shooting (12-of-17 from three). In this game alone had a season-high 23 points on 6-of-10 shooting (5-of-5 from three).
Oh, and he's also averaging 5.5 rebounds and 3.0 steals, and has 14 assists in those two games to just one turnover (none in this game). He had nine assists to no turnovers.
Now, he's the stone-cold assassin who comes to PNC Arena to rip the hearts out of the fans in attendance. And he loves that. His three-pointers often came when it seemed like N.C. State was on the verge of making a run, and the crowd -- ready to go crazy -- was immediately hushed.
"The fact that you don't hear anything is a good feeling," Paige said.
"I remember one sequence, they had scored a couple of baskets in a row and then they went zone and right away, I caught it on the wing and made a 3. That kind of stifled that run. Those are big moments for us, especially on the road. you've got to get the crowd out of it."
It wasn't always like this for Paige in this building, though.
As a freshman, Paige was smaller than he is now (which seems unbelievable), too slightly built to stand up to the beating that you take in conference play. North Carolina had already lost five games that year and N.C. State was one of the better teams in the country.
He finished with seven points on 2-of-11 shooting, four assists and three turnovers in 29 minutes. The numbers aside, he looked frightened in that game at times, overwhelmed by the moment.
And so no, he hasn't forgotten.
"I certainly haven't forgot it. There was a guy that N.C. State had named Lorenzo Brown," Paige said, as if it were several years ago (Brown was N..C State's starting point guard and had several inches and tons of strength on a freshman Paige).
"(Brown) basically introduced me to ACC basketball. He had like 22 and 10 or something. That was a learning experience for me. I responded the next time we played them at home. But I definitely haven't forgot about that. Trust me."
He stopped, as if he were just remembering it for the first time in a long time. He shook his head.
"Man," he said.
Junior J.P. Tokoto remembers it, too. As for Paige, he knew he had been in a tough situation, thrown into the role of a starting point guard without much of a safety net behind him. It was tough for him in 2013, but ultimately it toughened him up quickly and helped him grow.
What Tokoto really remembers was the game itself, and the feeling of losing. Roy Williams has only lost twice to N.C. State since his return to Chapel Hill in the fall of 2003.
"I just remember the feeling we had when we came back into the locker room after that loss. You always remember key losses like that, and especially at places like this," Tokoto said.
He joked with teammates after the Louisville game that he was "back" because of his game-winner, even though he hadn't played well the rest of the game.
Maybe he wasn't entirely joking after all.
"I've told you guys that I'm a real confident person in general anyway, and I've kind of tricked myself into being confident because I haven't been playing really well, so I kind of have to do that," Paige said.
"But having a couple of games where I've played well and had some success has helped me, and now I think I'm starting to hit my stride. Our team is starting to find our stride and find what we do well."
2. In a battle of the bigs, North Carolina came out on top
Both sets of bigs have a ton of upside and potential, but certainly North Carolina's -- sophomore center Kennedy Meeks and junior forward Brice Johnson -- are more seasoned.
It showed in this matchup, as the duo (plus sophomore Isaiah Hicks) combined for 37 points on 17-of-27 shooting (with 19 rebounds and three blocks).
As good as Paige was, N.C. State head coach Mark Gottfried said that was the difference in the game.
"(Paige) had a heck of a game tonight. but I thought what complemented his play was those 17 baskets by their three bigs. That was the difference more, to me, than him," Gottfried said.
Many of Paige's nine assists went to the bigs, but still -- all three posted up authoritatively in the first half, moved the basketball well (both to each other and kicking it back out when necessary) and looked like the dominant offensive threats they're capable of being.
Hicks, in particular, was impressive -- 12 points off the bench on 6-of-7 shooting.
"Isaiah set the tone and showed us the formula. When he came in, his first substitution, he posted up strong, he ran the floor and he got some easy baskets just from being big inside," Paige said. "We like to play inside-out. He did it, Kennedy followed suit and we started getting some baskets inside and pounding the ball inside because that's one of our strengths."
N.C. State's bigs dominated the matchup with Duke, but they were less of a factor in this one. Kyle Washington finished with 17 points, but the other three combined for 11 points on 5-of-12 shooting. After a career night against Duke, sophomore BeeJay Anya could only play 17 minutes before fouling out.
N.C. State's group still has a ton of upside, but they have a bit more seasoning left to get to where they need to be yet.
3. Both teams showed flashes of how great they can be when they're clicking
North Carolina clicked a lot longer on both ends of the court -- the defense had N.C. State all out of sorts in the first 20 minutes, and the Tar Heels moved the basketball patiently and efficiently in the first half.
"When they were in zone, we got 5-6 great shots in a row and then we really got in a rhythm offensively. So by the time they switched back to man, we were kind of already in our groove so we were just running sets, getting good shots and making them work, not taking quick shots like we did really early in the game," Paige said.
"Once we get in that groove where we're moving the ball side to side, changing sides of the floor, setting good screens, we're a pretty deep and versatile offensive team."
North Carolina's defense has been good pretty much all season. But at times against a team that can zone effectively, the Tar Heels have looked lost. At times, even when the offense is going well for stretches, it inevitably stagnates.
This was as consistent a game as UNC has had on that end of the court all year.
If the Tar Heels keep defending like that and the offense gets going, watch out. "We're getting there. We haven't found that stride yet as a team, but we're trending upward and I like that," Paige said.
N.C. State might not have won the game, but the assumption that they would just let down or roll over after the big win over Duke.
But N.C. State stayed in it with great work on the offensive glass. North Carolina has been dominating the backboards offensively and defensively all year entering this game, and N.C. State turned the tables on them, rebounding 42.9 percent of their missed shots and limiting North Carolina to 32.1 percent on the offensive boards.
N.C. State showed what it can do against Duke, and while they couldn't sustain that same kind of effort for a full 40 minutes, they showed it wasn't a fluke, either. N.C. State cut North Carolina's 12-point lead with 7:57 to go down to as low as one in the closing minutes.
They couldn't given up, but they didn't. A moral victory isn't enough for them, but it showed that they're for real. "We feel like if we would've played two halves, it would've been a different outcome," Trevor Lacey said.
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