Saturday, March 26, 2016

Paige leads scorching shooting effort as UNC reaches Elite 8

Marcus Paige's 21 points and six three-pointers led North Carolina in 101-86 romp over Indiana, bringing Tar Heels to a regional final for first time since 2012. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated)

PHILADELPHIA -- The consensus around basketball circles is that Stephen Curry is the best shooter in the game today, but in the opening stages of Friday's East Regional semifinal, the reigning NBA Most Valuable Player had some competition.

Marcus Paige broke out of any supposed slump before the first media timeout, connecting on four of his six three-pointers within the game's first five minutes as North Carolina validated their No. 1 seed, jumping on the accelerator and not looking back en route to a 101-86 victory over fifth-seeded Indiana at the Wells Fargo Center.

"I felt good," said Paige, who led the Tar Heels (31-6) with 21 points, setting up a rubber match with conference rival Notre Dame in UNC's first regional final appearance since 2012. "As a shooter, when you get the first one to go down, it's always a good thing for your confidence. That really helped me get going, and I think other guys fed off that."

The senior, who endured a stretch of unusually subpar shooting nights in recent weeks, opened the scoring 34 seconds into the contest with a trifecta just off the top of the key, racking up 12 points before Indiana (27-8) could even get out of the blocks, leaving the Hoosiers befuddled in their quest to stop him.

"Marcus was making video game shots to start the game," said Tom Crean, who got a firsthand look to Paige's display from the opposing bench. "We never got him under control with what we wanted to do on the wings, and he's a tremendous wing shooter. What he did was he got hot and was able to make them from other places."

"I think Marcus got us off to such a good start," head coach Roy Williams reiterated. "We were fortunate, because I didn't think we played that well defensively in the first half. There's no question that it gives you a good feeling."

All told, five Tar Heels posted double-figure scoring totals, led by Paige, who passed Michael Jordan on UNC's all-time scoring list in a winning effort that saw UNC shoot 52 percent from the floor and 55 from three-point range, where they made nine of their first eleven attempts from beyond the arc. Brice Johnson amassed 20 points and 10 rebounds for his 22nd double-double of the year, tying a single-season school record, while Kennedy Meeks chipped in 15 points. Joel Berry and Justin Jackson collected 14 points apiece.

Looking ahead to Sunday's regional final, which tips off at 8:49 p.m., North Carolina is in the Elite Eight for the first time since their season was ended on that stage four years ago by eventual national runner-up Kansas. They face a Notre Dame team that defeated them in the regular season, a loss that was emphatically avenged in a 78-47 ACC Tournament semifinal that could best be described as a defensive clinic conducted by the Tar Heels. Regardless, a team considered among the best in the country throughout the season stands on the precipice of achieving a team goal, and their conductor in the backcourt appreciates where he and his teammates stand entering Sunday night.

"It's extremely exciting," said Paige of playing for a spot in the Final Four, where UNC has not been since winning the national championship in 2009. "It's one of the things we've talked about all year, one of the goals we've set, so to be one game away is extremely exciting, and to beat a great Indiana team to get there, it feels really good. We're in a good place mentally right now."

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