Paige thriving in leading role for Tar Heels
Forced to become North Carolina's go-to guy on the perimeter, Marcus Paige has kept finding ways to up his game in the second half.
Just don't ask the sophomore how he does it. He can't explain why his scoring and shooting percentages spike after halftime heading into Wednesday's rivalry game against No. 8 Duke.
"I have been a little bit more aggressive (after halftime)," Paige said. "But it's not like I'm not trying to produce or be aggressive in the first half. ... When you look at the numbers, it is kind of crazy."
Paige entered the year expecting to be a complementary perimeter scorer to P.J. Hairston for the Tar Heels (16-7, 6-4 Atlantic Coast Conference). But with Hairston never playing a game due to NCAA violations, the left-hander has thrived as the top scorer at 17 points per game for a team that has won a season-best five straight games.
Much of that production comes after halftime.
In the first 20 minutes of games, the Marion, Iowa, native is averaging 6.4 points on 36.6 percent shooting, including 31 percent from 3-point range. Those numbers jump after halftime to 10.6 points on 47.8 percent shooting and 41 percent from behind the arc, according to STATS LLC.
That includes UNC's only overtime game, a 97-85 win against Davidson on Dec. 21 in which Paige scored 11 of his 17 points in OT.
"I think really, really tough competitors — which I think he is — can't stand it when they play poorly for a half," Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams said. "So they try to rectify the situation. And he's also such a tremendously gifted team player that sometimes in the first half he might back off a little bit and try to get guys involved."
Some of his best performances have come in UNC's biggest games this year.
Paige — who shifted from the point to the wing while Hairston and senior Leslie McDonald were out with NCAA eligibility concerns — scored a career-high 32 points against Louisville in November. Ten days later, he scored 11 of his 13 in the second half of a win at then-No. 1 Michigan State. In December, he scored 21 of his 23 in the second half in a win against Kentucky.
Last week, he scored 18 of his 25 in the second half against Maryland.
He's also making an ACC-best 90.5 percent of his free throws as the only reliable option for a team struggling mightily at the line.
"He's a whole different animal," Duke point guard Quinn Cook said. "He's way more aggressive and I think he has that confidence where he's played in big games — Louisville, Michigan State, Kentucky — and he's performed well. ... He's taken his game to a whole new level."
Still, Paige said he's hearing a bit of ribbing about the disparity between his first- and second-half performances.
Assistant coach C.B. McGrath has told Paige he wished the team could figure out a way to have Paige play 20 minutes before the tipoff. Fellow sophomore J.P. Tokoto said there was back-and-forth between players before last weekend's game at Notre Dame about whether Paige should even bother playing the first half.
Even his mother has gotten into the act.
Sherryl Paige, a former high school basketball coach who coached his sister — Wisconsin senior guard Morgan Paige — referred to her son as "The One-Half Paige Wonder."
"I try not to get into his head too much but I'm always like, 'Dude, what are you waiting on?'" she said with a laugh. "He is such a competitor. He knows if it's crunch time or 'I want to win so now I've really got to turn it up.' But I think he's such a guy that likes to get his teammates involved that he forgets sometimes — or he doesn't forget but he needs to understand — that he's part of that involvement as well."
Either way, Paige said it's helped his confidence to know he can shake off a bad start — even if he still can't explain why.
"If I can figure out exactly what it is," Paige said, "I'd try to apply that to the first half."
AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Durham contributed to this report.