CHICAGO — North Carolina has struggled to get Marcus Paige going on the offensive end this season and its part of the reason the Tar Heels sat at No. 24 in the country entering Saturday’s game against No. 12 Ohio State.
Even though the junior guard didn’t have a big game against the Buckeyes at the United Center, North Carolina used a balanced attack, shared the ball and dominated on the interior in an 82-74 win over Ohio State.
Paige scored 16 points on 4-for-12 shooting on the afternoon, but because the Tar Heels had solid performances from other guards and moved the ball well around the perimeter, they were able to crash the offensive glass and find open looks for other players in spots where they were effective.
Junior forward Brice Johnson finished with 18 points on 8-for-10 shooting while freshman Justin Jackson pitched in 11 points. Despite only shooting 3-for-13 from the three-point line, North Carolina was able to crack Ohio State’s 2-3 zone and extended second-half pressure because they have so many talented passers who can get easy looks for teammates.
“When we make the easy play, that’s a good thing for us,” Paige said. “Some games we’ll try to thread the needle and be too cute with the ball.”
J.P. Tokoto led the Tar Heels with six assists — to go along with eight points and eight rebounds — and he was one of four North Carolina players with at least four assists. The Tar Heels had 29 field goals and 23 of them came off of assists, including their first nine field goals of the game. Perimeter shooting is still a major weakness for North Carolina, but if you don’t pressure their guards and let them work it around while spacing the floor, they’ll find a way to get Johnson a short-corner jumper or work the ball into a good shot by getting the ball in the middle of the zone.
“We had good movement. Movement of the ball and movement of bodies. Always say move the ball and move the ball intelligently and we did that,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said.
While Paige once again seemed to have an invisible lid on the basket — he missed two open, point-blank layups on the afternoon — because backup point guards Nate Britt and Joel Berry II played so efficiently, Paige was able to play off of the ball more and draw a lot of defensive attention from Ohio State. Britt and Berry II combined to score 11 points (on 3-for-3 shooting), had five assists and only one turnover. If those two provide a steady presence with the ball in their hands, it lets Paige be aggressive when hunting his own offense and forces defenses to pay more attention to more perimeter threats.
“I’m more aggressive when I have the ball in my hands, but obviously playing shooting guard allows me to be [aggressive too],” Paige said. “I just feel that I have to attack better when I’m the point guard and when I’m the shooting guard I tend to settle for jump shots, so I’m trying to attack more [off-the-ball].”
It didn’t help that Ohio State’s interior play was atrocious. The Buckeye big men midway through the second half had more fouls than points or rebounds and Amir Williams, Trey McDonald and Anthony Lee all gave Ohio State next to nothing.
Even with the Buckeyes getting productive efforts from D’Angelo Russell (11 points, eight rebounds, five assists), Marc Loving (19 points), Shannon Scott (10 points, eight assists) and Sam Thompson (17 points), without any kind of interior presence on either end of the floor, Ohio State had no real chance on Saturday.
Ohio State only led for 22 seconds of the game and played most of the game behind by 8-to-15 points.
It’s hard to say if North Carolina is an improved team or if Ohio State’s lack of interior play just made for a real mismatch, but this was a comfortable win for the Tar Heels while the Buckeyes have yet to win against a legitimate opponent in 2014-15.