On Wednesday, No. 1-ranked Michigan State (7-1) closed the first half on a 13-2 run to strangle the momentum and drag it into the locker room.
But for the second time in 10 days, the less-talented and less experienced team was the one to excel in the second half.
Against then-No. 3 Louisville, UNC (5-2) shot 56.7 percent while holding the defending national champs to 38.8 percent behind Marcus Paige’s career-high 32 points. Against the Spartans, the shooting discrepancy was even greater as UNC shot 51.7 percent to MSU’s 31.3 percent.
There was one notable difference in those contests. UNC’s win over Louisville came on a neutral court at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut with plenty of Carolina blue in the stands. The Breslin Center was nowhere near as accommodating, which made the Tar Heels play to open the second half critical.
Paige (13 points, 5 assists) drilled a 3-pointer on UNC’s opening possession to quiet the crowd and the Tar Heels never allowed oxygen to creep into its lungs.
“I thought the first three or four minutes of the second half was crucial,” UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters following his team's 79-65 win.
A pair of Spartan 3-balls tied the score in the opening 2:05 of the second half, but UNC forced two turnovers and limited its opponent to one shot on two different possessions to build a 43-38 lead just over three minutes in.
“They were going to make a run, especially at home, but the way we responded to it is what allowed us to win the game,” Paige said of Michigan State’s 13-2 spurt. “Obviously, the first four minutes of the second half were huge. In the past, we’ve had big letdowns to open the second half, even at home, so to come out and execute the way we did at the start of the second half was the key to the entire game.”
Only once in the opening 14 minutes did Michigan State score a basket without the Tar Heels promptly matching.
The Spartans never led on Wednesday, due in large part to UNC not offering an opportunity. Instead, the Tar Heels slowly and methodically increased its lead throughout the second half.
While Paige was critical yet again in managing the game, his point production was nearly a third of his output against Louisville. UNC’s underclassmen, however, elevated their play to offset the difference.
With UNC leading 41-38, Kennedy Meeks (15 pts, 7 rebs) scored six points on three consecutive possessions. Not to be outdone, Brice Johnson (14 pts, 6 rebs) added six straight points of his own to keep the Tar Heels out in front 53-49. It was then J.P. Tokoto’s turn as the sophomore wing (12 pts, 10 rebs) also scored six straight points to push UNC’s lead to 59-51 with 7:59 to play.
Underclassmen accounted for 45 of UNC’s 47 second-half points, 18 of its 26 rebounds and eight of its 10 assists. Those freshmen and sophomores even knocked down 76.5 percent of their free throws (13-of-17) after halftime.
UNC led Louisville by as many as 16 in the final minutes of that upset and built a 14-point lead over Michigan State in the closing seconds on Wednesday.
The crowd that was threatening to blow the doors off the Breslin Center with a minute left before halftime ended up filing out of the building with a minute to play and its team saddled with its first loss of the season.