Through its first eight games of this season, North Carolina looked like much more than a one-man team.
Going into Saturday’s contest at Texas, all five Tar Heel starters were averaging at least 11 points per game. Joel Berry had been solid while running the point, Brice Johnson was registering double-doubles more often than not, and a deep bench allowed head coach Roy Williams to work with several different lineups.
But in the waning moments of the matchup in Austin, UNC was in an all-too-familiar position. Just like many times last season, and in the season before, the team needed a play, and Marcus Paige appeared to be the only player who could consistently provide that.
Paige answered the bell both as a scorer and passer, but it was too little, too late. The Longhorns had the final shot, and Javan Felix’s jumper with a tenth of a second left on the clock withstood a review, sealing an 84-82 win for his team.
It’s difficult to beat teams that shoot 12-of-24 from three-point range as Texas did, and in that respect, the Tar Heels were fortunate that the score was tied 39 minutes and 59.9 seconds into the contest. However, there was a reason why Shaka Smart’s squad was hitting so many shots from long range, and had UNC played better defense, it could have had the game well in hand by that point.
North Carolina’s guards had difficulty staying in front of Texas’ backcourt players the entire night. Felix, Isaiah Taylor and Eric Davis combined for 59 points on 22-of-36 shooting, and the trio was responsible for 11 of the team’s three-point baskets. Many of those deep shots came on kickouts after UNC guards were getting beat off the dribble.
Even after the Longhorns hit their last long-range shot with Taylor knocking one down at the 3:46 mark, UNC struggled getting stops. Texas scored on each of its last six possessions, with the final bucket proving to be the difference.
Offensively, the Tar Heels weren’t dead, but much of their production was fueled by Paige. The senior scored 15 of his 20 points in the second half, and a few of those baskets came at key times.
Texas claimed a 67-66 lead with 6:26 to go, but Paige responded eight seconds later with a three on the other end of the floor. The guard had two key layups later in the game — one to take the lead with just over three minutes to go and another that knotted the score at 80-80 with 49 seconds left — that put his team in excellent position to get a win.
On UNC’s final possession, as the Heels frantically looked for Paige to hit another close shot, the 6-2 guard drove to the basket and found Johnson for a two-pointer that once again tied the game with eight seconds remaining.
Outside of Paige, though, Roy Williams’ team as a whole had trouble getting it done on either side of the court. Defensively, it was either going to be a foul or an open shot. Offensively, everyone in the arena knew where UNC wanted to go with the ball.
Once again on Saturday, the Tar Heels leaned heavily on Paige. But in the end, one man wasn’t enough to get the job done.