Let's start with two stats. UNC missed 19 free throws and got outrebounded by 12. In two of the Tar Heel losses this season those kind of numbers were trouble for this team. In those losses the margin of error was razor thin so coming up short on the boards and at the free throw line proved to be a bridge too far. That apparently isn't the case anymore as UNC got 23 points from Marcus Paige, 20 points from James Michael McAdoo to notch a 82-77 win over 11th ranked Kentucky.
Heading into this game, it was obvious Kentucky's size would be a problem for UNC despite the Tar Heels boasting plenty of size in their own right. That led to a slow start for the Heels offensively with Paige going 0-5 in the first half from the floor. With Paige struggling, J.P. Tokoto and James Michael McAdoo picked up the slack allowing the Tar Heels to turn a 19-12 early half deficit into a 33-30 halftime lead. Tokoto provided some perimeter shooting hitting a long two and then a three to give the Tar Heels a rare non-Paige three pointer. McAdoo made it a point to be really aggressive driving to the basket at every opportunity earning himself 13 free throw attempts in the first half. He hit nine of them and with Tokoto led the Heels at half with 11 points each.The half ended in a bit of controversy with Kentucky coach being whistled for a technical foul after Willie Cauley-Stein committed his third foul. That enabled to Heels to extend the lead to three at the break but possibly paid greater returns for Kentucky in the second half in terms of officiating.
Kentucky came out in the second half with a more aggressive posture with repeated drives to the basket. This led to a deluge of Tar Heel fouls, so much so, Kentucky was in the bonus by the first television timeout. It also saddled Tokoto and Brice Johnson with three fouls early in the half leading to some heavier than desired minutes from Desmond Hubert. Kentucky shot 20-26 from the free throw line in the second half and took a 40-39 lead with 16 minutes left.
At this point the Tar Heel offense got into gear with a stretch of eight straight possessions with UNC scoring. That included five straight field goals from five different Tar Heels. Paige kick started his offense with a couple of steals and became a major factor on the offensive end. The Tar Heels' long stretch of pronounced offensive efficiency pushed the Tar Heel lead yo 66-58 with 5:33 left. A quick five point spurt from Kentucky made it a three point game After the teams traded baskets to keep the game at one possession, Paige made a pair of spectacular plays that, according to the players, made the Dean Dome as loud as they have heard it in their time at UNC. With 1:41 left, Paige drove baseline and hit a high floater over the outstretched arm of Cauley-Stein to push the UNC lead to five. After an Andrew Harrison missed three, Paige threw an alley-oop up to Johnson in transition for a thunderous dunk that should have sealed the game.
Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, the free throw shooting bug made closing the game out more difficult than it should have been. Jackson Simmons, who was in the game because of Tokoto's poor free throw shooting, missed four attempts. The only daylight UNC got in this respect was from Paige being at the line and a pair of home run passes from Kennedy Meeks on inbounds play. With Nate Britt fouled out and all the attention on Paige, UNC utlitized Meeks' passing skills to get McAdoo to the free throw line and hit an open Tokoto for a dunk. However the missed free throws balanced against Kentucky making a pair of threes made it a three point contest with six seconds left. Paige's two free throws sealed the win and gave UNC a third win over a ranked team this season.
At this point, the notion that no one knows what this team is about would be a false one. UNC isn't always pretty on the offensive end but this team can defend. UNC held Julius Randle to 11 points and 5 rebounds on 3-9 shooting. James Young and Andrew Harrison were 3-10 and 3-11 from the floor respectively. Only Aaron Harrison proved to be effective going 8-12 for 20 points. This Tar Heel team might be flawed and missing some important elements but they have figured out how to win playing with toughness and as a team.