Although it wasn’t a matchup of two highly ranked teams as it has often been in the ACC, last night’s UNC vs. NC State game was one of the classic ACC battles we have grown accustomed to seeing so often in the past. The game itself wasn’t the exhibition of quality team basketball we are used to, as both teams seemed indifferent at times on the defensive end and committed numerous mistakes down the stretch. However, all of the storylines about the rivalry (or lack thereof depending on one’s stance) and the hatred between the two schools were overshadowed by what was one of the most memorable mono y mono battles the ACC has seen in recent memory.
Let’s put all of the debate between whether or not UNC and NC State are actually rivals aside. The game last night, which resulted in an 85-84 overtime victory for UNC, was highlighted by the individual battle between TJ Warren of NC State and Marcus Paige of UNC.
Warren and Paige, two guys who will almost certainly be named to the All-ACC first team at the end of the regular season, have been nothing short of magnificent all year. Warren leads the ACC in scoring, and Paige has begun receiving national attention as the leader of this North Carolina team that has been resurrected.
NC State led most of the game, largely because of TJ Warren’s ability to score at will against the Tar Heel defense. Even late into the second half, Warren seemed to have an answer every time the Tar Heels were able to claw their way back in it. It seemed as if the last seven or eight minutes of regulation and the five minutes of overtime was a highlight reel of TJ Warren driving to the bucket, followed by a three-pointer from Paige.
There have been a lot of good teams in the ACC’s storied history, and a lot of good players as well. Although the new trend in college basketball today is that the best talent leaves for the NBA after only a year or two in college, Marcus Paige and TJ Warren have solidified their place as two of the ACC’s best, even though they are only sophomores. After last night’s performances, Paige and Warren became the first ACC opponents to score 35 or more points against each other in a game since Al Thornton and J.J. Redick (two names that ACC fans won’t soon forget) did so in 2006.
Warren finished the game with a career-high 36 points. However, while he played a phenomenal game and has become one of the best players NC State has had in the last decade, his performance will forever be overshadowed by the memory of Marcus Paige finishing a tough left-handed layup with 0.09 seconds remaining to give Carolina the one-point win.
Paige finished with his career-high of 35 points, and had one of the most memorable second-half performances in a UNC jersey in a long time. Paige has proven time and time again that he has the “clutch” factor as fans have now given him the nickname “Second Half Paige.” While Paige had a quiet first half with just four points, he scored 31 points in the second half and overtime, and at one point was 7-10 from three-point range.
More importantly than the individual accomplishments of Marcus Paige is the fact that after defeating the Wolfpack, the North Carolina Tar Heels have now won 10 straight games following a 1-4 start to conference play and are looking as dangerous as they were early in the season when defeating the top three teams in the preseason AP poll.
In just a few short weeks, although it seems like an eternity, the North Carolina Tar Heels have gone from having sole possession of last place in the ACC to fourth and are just two games back of Syracuse for second place. The Heels were 11-7 overall, and the NIT seemed imminent for the Heels. Fans were already talking about next season and were ready to bring in the third-overall recruiting class in the country; but Marcus Paige felt differently.
The Heels have as much momentum at this point in the season as any team in the country, and hope to continue the streak one game at a time. The Heels travel to Blacksburg Saturday, March 1st to face a struggling Virginia Tech team. While everyone knows the meeting with Duke at Cameron Indoor is a week from Saturday, the Heels can’t afford to overlook the Hokies and the Irish of Notre Dame, and need to focus on the task at hand in order to carry as much momentum as possible into the ACC tournament.