CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — Marcus Paige and his North Carolina teammates have endured so many wild swings – big wins, surprising losses, NCAA drama – that no one can blame their Hall of Fame coach for wondering what’s next.
And yet, a month after sitting at 0-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Tar Heels are surging after a rousing comeback against their fiercest rival that had their fans rushing to midcourt to celebrate when it was over.
Paige scored all 13 of his points in the second half, including two big baskets in the final 2 1/2 minutes, to help UNC beat No. 5 Duke 74-66 on Thursday night for their eighth straight win.
Senior Leslie McDonald added a season-high 21 points for the Tar Heels (19-7, 9-4 ACC), who rallied from 11 points down in the second half to beat the Blue Devils (21-6, 10-4) in a rivalry game postponed more than a week by a winter storm.
It was by far North Carolina’s most impressive win during its run. Before Thursday, most had come against teams standing sixth or lower in the ACC standings.
“I’m not going to say we’re a finished product because we’ve got games left,” Paige said, “but man, we’re playing really well right now and we’re winning games in a lot of different ways.”
It marked UNC’s third win against a top-five team this season, along then-No. 1 Michigan State and then-No. 3 Louisville. Throw in then-No. 11 Kentucky in December, and the Tar Heels have beaten the top four teams from The Associated Press’ preseason Top 25.
Not bad for a team that never had top player P.J. Hairston due to NCAA violations for improper benefits.
“It was a bunch of guys that fought really hard,” coach Roy Williams said, “and I couldn’t be prouder of my team than I am right now.”
Fans filled the entire court during the celebration, which came eight days later than they had hoped due to last week’s winter storm that brought enough snow and ice to paralyze area roads. It kept Duke’s bus from even making it to Durham to pick up the team for the 11-mile drive to the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
The Tar Heels made it worth the wait for their fans by being tough enough to wrestle control from the Blue Devils. They shot 50 percent from the field after halftime and even made their last 10 free throws after a disastrous start at the line.
Jabari Parker and Quinn Cook both scored 17 points for Duke, which led 51-40 with about 15 minutes left before going ice cold from the field. The Blue Devils missed 13 straight shots and went scoreless for 6 minutes at one point, helping the Tar Heels climb back in it by mixing a 1-3-1 zone with man defense.
“They would just keep switching,” Cook said. “We’d come down, and we wouldn’t know what they’d be in. They kept us on our toes with their defense.”
Duke shot 36 percent (11 for 31) after halftime and made 5 of 22 3-pointers for the game,
Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he thought his team “played young” in the second half.
“We looked tired or we didn’t have life,” Krzyzewski said. “And no matter what we did in a timeout, we just didn’t have that spark – the anger, the emotion, the thing you have to have to match what their crowd, their team is doing. You have to try to counter that. And I just felt we were, we didn’t have the life that you needed to have.”
Paige provided plenty of that fight for the Tar Heels. After being hounded by Duke defenders Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon through his scoreless first half, he scored nine points in the final 5 1/2 minutes starting with his only 3-pointer of the night.
McDonald hit the go-ahead jumper to make it 62-60 with 3:54 left, capping his own strong performance after two straight 1-for-8 shooting performances. Paige followed with a stepback jumper over Rodney Hood with 2:11 left, then answered Parker’s free throws by driving for a scooping layup through the heart of Duke’s defense.
After Sulaimon missed a 3 on the ensuing possession, freshman Nate Britt followed with two free throws that pushed the lead to 68-62 with 46.2 seconds left and soon had the rowdy home crowd inching closer to the court.
It marked the 11th time Paige has scored in double figures in the second half this season after scoring four or fewer in the first.
The postponement created a four-games-in-eight-days stretch for both teams, though it’s particularly challenging for Duke with No. 1 Syracuse visiting Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday night in a rematch of the overtime classic won by the Orange earlier this month. UNC hosts Wake Forest on Saturday afternoon.
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