Marcus Paige isn’t having the type of season most expected when he was selected as a preseason All-American, but big men Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks have provided steady efforts to help make up for Paige’s dropped production.
Paige hasn’t had much trouble putting up big numbers against N.C. State, though.
The 15th-ranked Tar Heels seek their 18th victory in 19 meetings with the Wolfpack as the rivals meet Tuesday night in Chapel Hill.
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Paige averaged 17.5 points and shot 44.0 percent from the field as a sophomore in 2013-14. His numbers have dropped to 13.6 points per game while shooting 39.8 percent, and he especially struggled during North Carolina’s recent slump.
The Tar Heels (19-8, 9-5 ACC) dropped four of five heading into Saturday’s matchup against Georgia Tech, with Paige combining for 13 points and hitting 5 of 22 from the floor in losses at Pittsburgh and Duke over the final two of that stretch.
Meeks had 18 points and Johnson 16 in an 89-60 rout of the Yellow Jackets, but Paige controlled the game. He made five of his eight field-goal attempts – knocking down three 3-pointers – and also matched his career high with 10 assists and his season high with four steals.
Johnson, who played through an illness, is hitting 62.7 percent from the field and averaging 17.4 points over his last five while Meeks is shooting 71.0 percent and scoring 17.0 points in his last three.
"They both shoot (well above) 50 percent from the field and that’s going to win you a lot of games if you can play through them and have them be active on the defensive end as well," Paige said. "They’re a destructive force down there."
J.P. Tokoto added 12 points, six rebounds and five assists against Georgia Tech.
"We have to take this and keep moving forward," Tokoto said. "We are out of a drought now, but we could drop the next game very easily if we don’t come out to play."
Paige finished with a season-high 23 points – hitting all five of his 3-point attempts – in an 81-79 win over N.C. State on Jan. 14. Meeks had 15 and 10 rebounds while Johnson was held to 10 points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes before fouling out.
Paige has averaged 21.8 points during North Carolina’s four-game winning streak against the Wolfpack (16-11, 7-7), including when he hit a layup with 0.9 seconds left in overtime for a career-high 35 in an 85-84 victory last Feb. 26.
Getting some revenge could go a long way for the Wolfpack, who are fighting to earn a fourth straight NCAA tournament berth. They’ve won back-to-back games after dropping five of six, beating then-No. 9 Louisville 74-65 on the road Feb. 14 before defeating Virginia Tech 69-53 on Saturday.
Ralston Turner, who scored 20 points in the first meeting with the Tar Heels, finished with 18 and hit 4 of 8 from 3-point range despite battling a knee injury that has bothered him for a couple weeks.
”Recently things have gone our way,” Turner said. ”We’ve still got four more games to go, and we’re going to have to continue to bring the same type of energy.”
A win over the Tar Heels would give a boost to N.C. State’s postseason resume, but North Carolina has won 11 straight home meetings since the Wolfpack won in Chapel Hill on Feb. 25, 2003.