Roy Williams

North Carolina's Justin Jackson (44) reacts following a basket against UNC Greensboro during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Monday, Dec. 28, 2015. North Carolina won 96-63. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
AP Photo/Gerry Broome

Justin Jackson, No. 9 North Carolina survive at Boston College

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No. 9 North Carolina’s trip to Chestnut Hill to play ACC cellar dweller Boston College was expected to be a routine one, with Roy Williams’ team taking care of business and heading back home. The game was anything but routine, beginning with Williams’ decision to start a completely different front court from the one that struggled in a loss at Notre Dame Saturday night.

Add in Williams having to leave the sidelines after collapsing in the second half and the Tar Heels’ struggles throughout the night against Jim Christian’s Eagles, and North Carolina was in position to suffer a stunning setback. Yet in the end North Carolina won 68-65, thanks to a timely four-point play from Marcus Paige and 20 points from sophomore forward Justin Jackson.

Due to his recent shooting slump Paige has been the most often discussed Tar Heel of late, but given his overall track record there were few who thought he wouldn’t find a way to turn things around. He is North Carolina’s best player, and ultimately how far the Tar Heels go this spring will depend upon how well Paige plays. But he can’t do it all alone, and in the case of Jackson the Tar Heels have a gifted wing capable of making plays offensively…when he chooses to do so.

Against Boston College an aggression that hasn’t been seen from Jackson on a consistent basis this season, since a stretch in late November of three straight games of 20 points or more, was present. He attacked the Boston College defense on a night in which North Carolina’s perimeter shots once again missed the mark (5-for-16 3PT), scoring 20 points on 9-for-11 shooting from the field. The benching seemingly lit a fire under Jackson, giving North Carolina a much-needed boost in a game that turned out to be far more difficult than many expected.

The question now is what Jackson does to build on this performance. The skill is there, but this is a matter of having the mindset needed to make plays without being prodded. Brice Johnson has struggled with similar issues throughout his career, but he put forth the best basketball of his career earlier this season with Kennedy Meeks out of the lineup.

North Carolina struggled for much of the night, even before Williams had to leave the sidelines, and that cannot be glossed over. The Tar Heels have the talent needed to produce better performances than this, one that nearly led to them losing a game they were expected to win convincingly. But there is the positive of Jackson’s performance to take from it, as he looked to attack the Boston College defense consistently and experienced success in doing so.

The Tar Heels will face tougher competition in their remaining ACC games, and with that comes the need to have Jackson continue to play at this level. Tuesday night represents a step forward for Jackson, but how big of a step that is will be determined by what he does over the next month.

No. 2 UNC rolls to 12th straight win, 89-62 over BC

North Carolina's Brice Johnson (11) reacts following a basket as Boston College's A.J. Turner (11) looks on during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Jan. 30, 2016. North Carolina won 89-62. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) No. 2 North Carolina kept taking the ball from Boston College. Marcus Paige finally saw it go through the net.

The Tar Heels won their 12th straight game, forcing a season-best 23 turnovers in an 89-62 victory over the Eagles on Saturday.

Paige had 12 points in his highest-scoring game in three weeks, hitting three 3-pointers after making just one in his previous four games. After swishing the first 3 he tried, he shot a look of relief toward the Smith Center roof.

“I want you to go to the gym, miss 20-some in a row, then make one and have the whole arena cheer for you, just so you know how it feels,” Paige said with a laugh. “I’ve never missed that many shots in a row in my life, so just to finally get people (cheering), it was very relieving.”

Brice Johnson had 17 points and 11 rebounds, and Joel Berry II added 13 points for the Tar Heels (19-2, 8-0 Atlantic Coast Conference). After shaking off a slow start, the ACC’s leaders routed the league’s last-place team by turning those takeaways into 30 points.

Eli Carter had 19 points to lead the Eagles (7-14, 0-7), who were without guards Jerome Robinson (wrist injury) and Darryl Hicks (concussion). They shot 44 percent and hit 10 3-pointers but couldn’t overcome that season-worst turnover total while losing both their eighth straight overall and eighth in a row in the series.

“I thought defensively, we played hard, just offensively, we turned the ball over,” coach Jim Christian said. “We’re really short-handed. … A lot of them were on-ball turnovers, ballhandling turnovers. That was the difference in the game, obviously.”

The Tar Heels took care of the easy part of their schedule, and now things are about to get tougher, starting with Monday’s trip to No. 16 Louisville. After facing no team ranked in the AP Top 25 through their first eight ACC games, the Tar Heels will have six against teams currently ranked during the month of February.

For Paige, a few shots finally started to fall. He finished 4 of 9 and was 3 of 8 from 3-point range, a drastic improvement over his last few games. He was 5 of 35 from the field and 1 of 22 from 3-point range during the four games that followed his 30-point outburst at Florida State on Jan. 4.

North Carolina took control of this one late in the first half, reeling off 15 straight points to build a comfortable lead. Johnson hit a jumper from the key one possession before he capped the run with two free throws that made it 39-23 with 3:45 left. Berry then pushed the lead into the 20s for the first time with his three-point play made it 50-30 with 15:03 to play.

A BIG GREEN ROOM?

Most of North Carolina’s students wore neon-green T-shirts and ski caps as part of the school’s recycling campaign, with the shirts made from recycled plastic bottles. It made for an odd juxtaposition with Tar Heels coach Roy Williams’ criticism a day earlier of ESPN’s “frickin’ green room” and how the network touts NBA prospects playing in college games.

TIP-INS

Boston College: The Eagles started what might be the toughest three-game conference road swing in the country. After this one, they go to No. 11 Virginia and No. 16 Louisville. Those three have an average rank of No. 6 in Ken Pomeroy’s advanced stat rankings.

North Carolina: The Tar Heels missed their first eight free throws and nine of their first 10. … Kennedy Meeks did not start because he was late to the team’s shoot-around. Isaiah Hicks started in his place, while Meeks finished with eight points in 15 minutes.

UP NEXT

Boston College: visits No. 11 Virginia on Wednesday night.

North Carolina: visits No. 16 Louisville on Monday night.

Follow Joedy McCreary at http://twitter.com/joedyap. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/joedy-mccreary

AP college basketball site: http://collegebasketball.ap.org

No. 2 North Carolina hangs on, but Paige’s struggles continue

North Carolina forward Brice Johnson (11) goes up for a basket against Virginia Tech forward Zach LeDay (32) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Blacksburg, Va. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)
AP Photo/Don Petersen
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Entering the season, the question for No. 2 North Carolina was who would step forward alongside senior guard Marcus Paige to shoulder the load offensively. The most prominent answer to that query has been senior forward Brice Johnson, who’s emerged as an All-America candidate thanks to longer stretches of consistent play in the front court. And others have made strides as well, including guard Joel Berry II and forward Isaiah Hicks.

However, even with those developments North Carolina needs to be at his best if they’re to win the national title. Sunday afternoon the Tar Heels managed to hold off an improving Virginia Tech squad 75-70 in Blacksburg, but for the fourth consecutive game their feature offensive option struggled to get going.

Paige shot 2-for-10 from the field against the Hokies, and as the game wore on the senior didn’t look all too confident when it came to taking shots. Add in Berry’s 5-for-17 day, and the North Carolina perimeter attack was lacking offensively from a scoring standpoint. Over the last four games Paige is shooting 5-for-35 from the field, a far cry from what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from him throughout his college career.

The good news for UNC is that even with Paige’s struggles he remains a player to be respected by opposing defenses, and against Virginia Tech he tallied seven assists. During the current slump Paige has 20 assists to just six turnovers; he’s done a good job of not getting reckless in looking to end the cold shooting spell, instead allowing for others to make their mark offensively.

Against Virginia Tech Johnson posted yet another double-double, scoring 19 points and grabbing 17 rebounds, and Nate Britt contributed eight points off the bench. North Carolina has a host of options who can pick up the slack offensively on any given night, but there’s no denying that they need Paige to rediscover his shooting stroke.

After getting off to a good start from three this season the Tar Heels are shooting just 30.6 percent from deep, and against Virginia Tech they shot 3-for-23 with Berry responsible for all three makes.

That impacts spacing and the amount of room players such as Johnson and Kennedy Meeks have to operate in the paint, and if teams can sag defensively North Carolina loses that advantage. Against Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels experienced some offensive lulls as a result, and it nearly cost them the win.

That isn’t something you can pin solely on Paige, but he is North Carolina’s best shooter. Given his track record one would expect Paige to get going eventually, and when that happens the ACC’s best team becomes that much tougher to defend.