So far this season, North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige has on a number of occasions been a much better player in the second half than in the first. It happened again Thursday.
The sophomore scored all 13 of his points in the final 20 minutes, including three big shots over the final 5 1/2 minutes, and the Tar Heels won their eighth consecutive game 74-66 at the Smith Center.
North Carolina trailed by 11 at one point, but with 5:31 to play in the game, Paige hit a 3-pointer to get the hosts within 57-56. Reserve Quinn Cook, who along with Jabari Parker had a team-high 17 points, answered with a three to put Duke up four. The Tar Heels (19-7, 9-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) scored the next eight points with Leslie McDonald’s jumper off a pass from Paige giving the hosts the lead for good at 62-60.
Paige took care of the offense himself after that. The freshman Parker, who added 11 rebounds and a 7 of 14 shooting performance, picked up his fourth foul on the offensive end, and Paige drained a jumper to make it a 64-60 game. Parker’s two free throws once again got Duke (21-6, 10-4) to within two at 64-62, but Paige’s tough drive and lay up was followed by a 2 for 2 trip to the free throw line for Nate Britt and North Carolina held at least a two-possession lead for the remainder of the night.
The Tar Heels came into the night last in the ACC and 340th nationally in free-throw shooting and hit just one of their eight first-half attempts from the line.
It was a different story after that as the Chapel Hill school hit 13 of 17 from the charity stripe in the second half, including its last 10 attempts to moved to 5-1 against ranked teams.
Duke built its double-digit lead behind the play of Parker and Rodney Hood, going into the halftime locker room up 37-30 after 11 first-half points from Hood and 10 from Parker.
It was a 51-40 cushion five minutes into the second half, thanks to early-second half 3-pointers from Hood and Cook and Parker’s bucket at the 15:14 mark.
North Carolina chipped away as McDonald added to his excellent night (game-high 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting) with a lay up that got the Tar Heels started on an 11-2 spurt and sliced Duke’s lead down to 53-51 with about seven minutes left.
Hood was hot in the beginning stages of the game, hitting a variety of shots through the first eight minutes, and his 11 early points on 5 of 6 shooting helped the Blue Devils grab an 18-12 lead.
McDonald kept North Carolina close with 11 points of his own, and his bucket at the 7:27 mark made it a one-point game.
Hood and McDonald were both quiet over the final seven minutes of the opening half, but Parker wasn’t. The freshman came into the game as the Blue Devils’ leading scorer and he picked up eight points down the stretch of the half, including two baskets off a pair of nifty finds by Cook, and Duke took a seven-point cushion into the locker room.
It was the first time a top-5 Duke lost to an unranked North Carolina team since an 87-75 Tar Heels victory on March 4, 1990.