With four starters returning from a group that finished with 26 wins and a Sweet 16 appearance last year, North Carolina entered the 2015-16 campaign at No. 1 in the preseason Associated Press poll. Possessing a roster loaded with both talent and experience, the Tar Heels were inevitably going to be a popular pick to win the national title, and a Final Four run was more of an expectation than an aspiration.
But just a week before the season, star point guard Marcus Paige broke a bone in his right hand, and throughout its November schedule, UNC was forced to deal with life without the player who had been its best scorer, passer and defender the previous two years.
The struggles were evident, particularly in a four-point loss at Northern Iowa on Nov. 21, and Roy Williams’ squad looked more like a fringe Top 25 team than any sort of championship threat.
That changed this past Tuesday night.
The Heels’ nationally televised matchup against Maryland, which resulted in an 89-81 win for Williams and Co., was one of the biggest games of this college basketball season so far. Since the setback at Northern Iowa, UNC had lost its No. 1 ranking, but Tuesday night still brought No. 9 vs. No. 2. It still brought a career performance for Terrapins’ point guard Melo Trimble, who finished with 23 points and 12 assists. It still brought a dogfight between two heavyweights trading blows all the way down to the wire.
Most importantly, though, it brought the return of Paige. And, for that matter, it brought the return of title hopeful North Carolina.
No. 5 for the Heels was sensational from start to finish, from a statement three-pointer on the second possession of the game to a charge taken in the waning moments, preventing a late surge by Maryland.
“I just wanted to try to set the tone with some energy and play hard because I know that was one of the things we’ve been talking about,” Paige said after the win. “I got my first shot to go down, and that did a lot for me mental-wise.”
While Paige builds his own confidence by hitting shots, the senior builds confidence for his teammates simply by being on the floor. The Tar Heels, who had been inconsistent shooting from long distance going into Tuesday, hit nine of 13 shots from three-point range — making for the sixth-highest single-game percentage (.692) in school history with a minimum of 10 attempts.
With the veteran guard on the floor, more opportunities arise for everyone else in the lineup.
“Everyone keys in on Marcus, especially when he attacks the rim,” Joel Berry said after starting his seventh straight game this season. “Marcus can create his own shot, and he’s not the type of player that just wants his. He wants to do whatever he can to win.”
As Paige drew attention from the Terrapins on offense and made his impact defensively, some of his teammates were reaching career highs. Berry had wider passing lanes and dished out five assists, marking for the most he’s had since arriving in Chapel Hill last year. Sophomore Justin Jackson was able to take advantage of his length on the defensive end of the floor in tallying five steals, which made for a career-best.
Most importantly, Carolina was able to do all of this against another championship contender that played outstanding basketball even in a losing performance.
In just over a week’s span, UNC bounced back from a humiliating loss and scored a major victory in arguably the most high-profile game to date this season.
Much of it because of one player.
“I like my team,” Williams stated. “I feel a lot better when number five is out there.”