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UNC 89 Maryland 81: What We Learned

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Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

UNC got a very important win over a non-conference top five team. Some thoughts on that.

Marcus Paige is back

As I noted in the preview, there is no way of knowing what kind of performance you will get from a player returning off an injury. The impact on the team was expected to be positive and it was. As for Paige individually would his shot be off? Would he be tight? The list of possible hindrances goes on. As it turns out he picked up right where he left off at the end of last season. In fact he might be even better.

On the first UNC possession, Paige came off a screen at the top of the key looking for a shot, it wasn't there so he received the ball and drove in, dishing to Kennedy Meeks for a layup. On the next trip down, Paige sized up Jake Layman then buried a three in front of him. Paige said afterwards hitting the first shot calmed him down and allowed the team to really get into a flow.

In the second half with Melo Trimble and Rasheed Sulaimon hitting shots, Paige answered the bell. After Maryland took its first lead of the game, Paige responded with a three then a two point jumper to seize control of the game back. From there Paige only scored two more points and had just one assist but his impact early in the game in terms of UNC's overall intensity and the execution on both ends had the Tar Heels looking "right" for the first time all season.

Overall, the Tar Heel players looked far more comfortable with Paige out there. The defense seemed much improved in some areas but still struggled with dribble penetration and defending the pick and roll. Offensively, the half court execution had a better flow than previous games. Paige's presence and general leadership helped greatly in this respect and Berry seemed to be more comfortable running the offense with his backcourt mate in the lineup.

Helping hands

As much as Paige did to match the Trimble/Sulaimon salvos, it was a pair of big shots from Justin Jackson and Joel Berry that really pushed the Tar Heels over the hump. With the game tied at 69 and Paige gone to the bench for a rest, Jackson hit a three to give UNC the lead back. Theo Pinson's drives to the rim resulted in fouls and four points at the line. However the biggest shots came from Joel Berry.

Berry had been a little up and down in Paige's absence. With the senior guard back on the court, Berry looked much more relaxed and thanks to the defensive attention Paige draws, Berry had more space. Berry was 3-5 from three with one coming off a pass from Paige who drew the defensive focus.  In the second half with UNC up 80-74, Jackson fed Meeks in the post. Once the perimeter defender had cheated down, Meeks kicked it back out to Berry who drilled the open three for a nine point lead.

That was UNC's offensive balance at its finest and when all of the Tar Heel weapons are effective, this becomes a very difficult team to guard. Paige's return opened the door and his teammates stepped through it which means less pressure on him to feel like he must do everything.

The Tar Heel finish the job....but poorly

Last season, UNC's inability to finish game was a huge concern. Eight times the Tar Heels blew second half leads and those losses proved instrumental in saddling UNC with poor seeding position. If Carolina is to reach a Final Four, resolving these issues is obviously very important. The come from behind win versus Kansas State offered a glimpse of a team that could drop the hammer when needed to pull a game out.

With five minutes to go versus Maryland, UNC pushed out to a nine point lead and inside of two minutes the game became a free throw contest. The Tar Heels fared poorly and did so with the players who should be taking free throws in that situation. Berry missed the front end of a one-and-one then went 2-4 on his next four attempts. Pinson, who was 4-4 on the game missed two free throws and the UNC career leader in free throw percentage, Marcus Paige, also missed two shots at the line. With UNC clinging to a six point lead, UNC went 2-9 at the stripe. UNC got away with it because Maryland failed to produce on the other end.

Seeing that Paige and Berry are normally very good free throw shooters, this may have been a fluke. Coming into the game, Berry had not missed a free throw in the first six games. Paige missed two or more free throws just twice last season. Going forward these are still the guys UNC wants to have the ball in their hands and most of the time it should work out.