ATLANTA - Marcus Paige was North Carolina’s leading scorer coming into Wednesday’s game against Georgia Tech, but had just two points at halftime.
Paige was perfect in the second half.
The guard had 17 second-half points and James Michael McAdoo scored 17 points in leading the Tar Heels to a 78-65 victory at McCamish Pavilion.
With Tech (11-10, 2-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) making it a 36-34 game on Trae Golden’s 3-pointer at the 15:17 mark of the second half, Paige began to take over.
The sophomore from Marion, Iowa bookended a 9-2 run with a three and a mid-range jumper and the visitors led 45-36 with 12 minutes to play. The Yellow Jackets pulled to within 45-39 before Paige hit a pair of threes and assisted on three other baskets - part of a seven-assist night - and North Carolina (13-7, 3-4) soon held a 63-51 advantage with three minutes left.
“We’ve played 20 games, I bet (Paige has) had 15 games where he’s been much much better in one half than he’s been in the other half,” said North Carolina coach Roy Williams. “It’s been weird.”
North Carolina shot the ball extremely well to start the second half, and that was without two foul-plagued starters on the court.
J.P. Tokoto and McAdoo each picked up their fourth fouls 50 seconds apart, and soon after McAdoo joined Tokoto on the bench, Golden corralled the rebound off his own miss and hit the long ball that got Tech to within two.
That was the closest the Yellow Jackets would get in dropping their fourth straight in the series.
“With (McAdoo and Tokoto) sitting on the bench, I think the other guys raised their play a little bit. Everybody else just upped their level of play a little bit,” said Williams, who coached in his 900th career game, 381 of which have come at North Carolina.
Brice Johnson and Daniel Miller traded dunks - the first of which was an alley-oop off a feed from Leslie McDonald and the last came after Miller scooped up a loose ball underneath to tie the game at 10-10.
The Tar Heels’ duo reversed roles on the ensuing possession as Johnson penetrated and found McDonald open on the perimeter for three of his 15 points, that put North Carolina up 13-10 with 12 minutes to go in the first.
Miller’s jam was part of a strong first nine and a half minutes for the senior center. Starting with the dunk, he had six straight Tech points, including a jumper that gave the Yellow Jackets their first lead at 14-13 with 10:23 to go until halftime.
Tech went cold after that, which allowed North Carolina to take a multiple-possession lead.
The hosts went nearly six minutes without a field goal, while McAdoo had six of his eight first-half points and Johnson had a jumper and a dunk during an 11-1 spurt that gave the Tar Heels a 24-15 cushion at the five-minute mark.
Tech scored 10 of the last 12 points of the first half and were within a single point at the break.
Tokoto knocked down a jumper with two and a half minutes remaining that put North Carolina ahead 26-20. Golden checked back into the game, drained a 3-pointer, then was inexplicably fouled by Tokoto with .2 seconds left and hit 2-of-3 free throws to cut the halftime deficit to 26-25.
Paige was 1-of-7 from the field in the opening half and the Tar Heels made 30 percent of their field goal attempts and were just 1-of-3 from the free-throw line. The second half was a different story as the visitors from Chapel Hill, who came into the game 338th nationally from the free throw line, went 16-of-20 from the stripe, and hit 67 percent of their shots from the field, led by Paige, who sank all six of his attempts over the final 20 minutes.
“Marcus was really something in the second half,” said Williams.
“When Marcus Paige plays at that level…they’re an elite level team, there’s no question about it. They’re a final four caliber team,” said Tech coach Brian Gregory. “There were some things we did well today, but when you play a team like that you have to do a lot of things well.”
Golden scored 21 points and Marcus Georges-Hunt added 17 for Tech, which hasn’t beaten North Carolina since January, 2011.