UNC announced on Thursday that junior wing P.J. Hairston and senior guard Leslie McDonald would sit out Friday’s opener due to an ongoing compliance issue with the University and NCAA.
Without two of UNC’s top-three outside threats available, Paige created offensive spacing early by knocking down a trio of treys during a 17-2 UNC run that built a 29-10 lead less than nine minutes into the game.
Paige, who logged a team-high 32 minutes, played primarily at the two-guard alongside either Nate Britt or Luke Davis, although he also notched two minutes in the first half at the point when Roy Williams elected to go big with J.P. Tokoto at the two and James Michael McAdoo at the three.
Two of Paige’s 3-pointers came on passes by freshman Kennedy Meeks from the opposite block.
“I’ve just got to stay aggressive, especially with the lineup that we had,” Paige told reporters following the 84-61 victory. “I’m one of the only perimeter shooters, so I’ve got to keep looking for my shot. I can’t get complacent with just chillin’ on the wings.”
North Carolina connected on 5-of-13 3-point shots, including a 5-of-9 effort in the first half. Paige’s 4-of-7 stat line highlights the lack of outside shooting beyond his production.
“Someone’s got to knock down shots,” Paige said. “You’ve got to be able to score from outside and inside, so I’m accepting that responsibility, especially now without our two best shooters. It’s a void that I have to fill for now.”
Paige also dished out five assists while committing two turnovers.
Paige’s effectiveness on the floor extends beyond perimeter shooting and ball handling. Freshman Nate Britt, who became the ninth point in school history to start in his first game, acknowledged the critical role his elder teammate has played during his short career.
“He’s been helping me since the summer,” Britt said. “I think if he didn’t go through what he went through last year, he wouldn’t have been able to help me as much as he did. He knows just about everything. He knows how Coach wants his point guards to play, so he’s been teaching me the whole time and that’s given me a great advantage coming into the season.”
Paige has previously discussed the challenges involved with starting as a freshman point guard in Williams’s system without having a veteran to lean on.
“Nate’s my guy,” Paige said. “He’s been playing well. He played awesome in the exhibition game, but he’s a freshman, so he’s going to have days where he might get a couple of fouls or turn the ball over a couple of times and have Coach get on him. I’ve been there… Someone that’s been through the ropes like myself, I can help him out and just try to keep his confidence up.”
Britt finished with four points on 2-of-4 shooting to go along with three assists and three turnovers.
The issue for Paige, at least while the NCAA issue is ongoing for his teammates, centers on the demand for his presence on the court.
“I can’t play him that much,” Williams said. “ Thirty-two minutes – I don’t want to play him any more than that; it’s a long, long season.”
Paige averaged 31.6 minutes per game over UNC’s final 13 contests last season.