In UNC’s 93-84 win over then-No. 3 Louisville, Marcus Paige carried his team to victory with a career-high 32 points. Ten days later, five Tar Heels scored in double figures to run top-ranked Michigan State out of the Breslin Center.
On Saturday night, UNC employed yet approach in its 82-77 win over No. 11 Kentucky. It was the same method most observers felt would be required in the preseason once eligibility concerns arose for P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, the one requiring standout performances from Marcus Paige (23 points) and James Michael McAdoo (20).
Paige and McAdoo combined for 43 points on 10-of-19 shooting, while totaling 29 trips to the free throw line between them. Add in J.P. Tokoto’s 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting, and the Tar Heels had plenty of firepower to go along with a solid defensive effort in holding the Wildcats to 40.7 percent shooting.
While Paige and McAdoo were the headliners, UNC’s balanced attack proved to be the key in pulling away from Kentucky midway through the second half.
Paige’s steal and layup to give UNC a 41-40 lead with 15:35 to play ignited a spurt of nine straight possessions that ended with points on the scoreboard. More importantly, it highlighted the various contributions from various Tar Heels.
Kennedy Meeks added a free throw and a block. Brice Johnson added a basket and a rebound. Nate Britt scored on two drives while Tokoto and McAdoo both added field goals. Even defensive-minded Desmond Hubert got involved with an offensive rebound and putback.
Seven different players scored in the 17-10 run to give UNC a 56-50 lead with 11:16 to play.
“I love that balance,” Roy Williams told reporters during his postgame press conference. “I always think that’s the most difficult thing to do.”
That type of group production has become a consistent component of UNC’s success despite an infusion of new faces to the lineup and veterans having to assume new roles.
There’s no question Paige is the go-to scoring option, but the complementary contributions have been numerous.
“We know Marcus is going to score, that’s a given,” Tokoto said. “We’re going to get him open, he’s going to look for his shot and that’s what he needs to do. As far as anybody else, me or Mac, or it could be Kennedy, Nate or Brice, any one of us can step up and put the ball in the bucket if we need it.”
There was Meeks’ 13-point, 12-rebound, seven-assist performance against Louisville followed by Tokoto’s 16-point effort at UAB. Johnson (14 pts, 6 rebs) and Britt (13 pts, 6 rebs) were instrumental in the victory at Michigan State and even Jackson Simmons played critical minutes in Saturday’s win.
Tokoto described the emerging balance as “encouraging” due its pressure-relieving ability.
“You’re not going to beat yourself down because you know the scoring can come from somewhere else,” Tokoto said. “A guy like me, I can go do other things like rebound, pass the ball into the post, get an assist or get a stop on the defensive end. We’ve got a lot of versatile guys on the team and if one thing’s not working, we can switch it up and go to something else.”
Balance, of course, is nothing new for UNC. It’s been a staple concept dating back to the Dean Smith era in Chapel Hill and the reason has been put on display in the Tar Heels’ three wins over top-15 opponents this season.
“[Balance] is definitely something you want to have,” McAdoo said. “Especially not having Leslie and P.J. out there, I think that’s something that’s really surprising just having so many different guys contribute.
“That’s just North Carolina basketball, though. North Carolina basketball usually doesn’t have one guy that’s just predominantly dominating any area. It’s nice when you do, but for a team like ours, with so many guys trying to find their new roles, it’s huge when you have so many people step up.”
By sharing the ball, UNC increases its productiveness. Look no further than UNC’s second-half success in its trio of wins – the Tar Heels shot 56.7 percent against Louisville, 51.7 percent against Michigan State and 56.7 percent against Kentucky.