A failed alley-oop is proof Marcus Paige is back for No. 9 North Carolina

AP Photo/Gerry Broome
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — To get an idea of just how much No. 9 North Carolina’s tilt with No. 2 Maryland meant to the Tar Heel faithful, you first need to understand how often their most famous fan makes it out to the Dean E. Smith Center to see a game these days.

Never.

At least not in the four years that Marcus Paige has been in Chapel Hill.

But on Tuesday night, sitting right there in the floor seats, close enough to trip Melo Trimble if need be, was rapper J. Cole. He showed up early in the first half and didn’t leave until he had a chance to meet the team and take a picture with them after the game.

How much did that mean to them?

On one of the first possessions that Cole was court side, North Carolina’s Joel James hit a turnaround jumper over a Maryland defender and, on his way back down court, winked and pointed at the Fayetteville native.

Kennedy Meeks’ reaction was even better.

“Kennedy pointed it out to me in the middle of a defensive possession!” noted hip-hop head Marcus Paige said with a laugh after the game. “I’m talking to get through a screen and he’s like, ‘J. Cole walked in! He’s sitting right over there.'”

“Lemme tell you,” Paige continued, “everyday I play J. Cole stuff. He’s like No. 1 for me in terms of hip-hop artists.”

“We’re always hoping, since he’s from North Carolina and stays around here, that he’d come through. That was really cool.”

He did come through.

And what he saw was the Tar Heels beat their former ACC rivals, 89-81, in a game that drove home a point: When they’re healthy, when Paige is himself, North Carolina may very well be the best team in the country.

—————–

“Was all over, reflectin’ my life, boy, you heard me

Top it off I throw on my Carolina jersey” – J. Cole, ‘I got it’

—————–

Marcus Paige is back.

For the first time this season, Paige donned a North Carolina jersey, which is huge for the Heels. He’s their leader and their star and their all-american. He was all three of those things on Tuesday. He was a creator. He was a calming presence on the offensive end. He dove on the floor defensively and was a constant voice in his teammate’s ears. He was everything that you could ask a senior all-american to be.

“I like my team,” head coach Roy Williams said after the game. “I like my team a lot better when No. 5 is out there.”

More importantly, however, this was the first time in more than a calendar year that Paige stepped onto the floor of the Dean Dome without a bad ankle. Or plantar fasciitis. Or any of the pain that bothered him throughout his disappointing junior season.

On Tuesday night, he “only” had a taped up right hand to protect a bone he broke four weeks ago.

It didn’t take Paige long to find the form that made him the NBCSports.com Preseason National Player of the Year prior to the 2014-15 season. On the first Tar Heel possession, he came off of a ball-screen, drove the lane and found Meeks at the rim for a layup. Not 30 seconds later, he came off of a down screen and buried a three. He would finish with 20 points and five assists, shooting 7-for-12 from the floor and 4-for-5 from three while committing just a single turnover.

But if you ask his teammates, the moment that they realized that Paige was back — that their all-american was back to being an all-american — came midway through the first half.

Paige had stripped Trimble at midcourt, the ball ending up in Brice Johnson’s hands on a 3-on-1 break. Paige — who is known for his savvy and shooting ability, not for his athleticism — was streaking up the right side of the floor, calling for a lob. Johnson’s pass was low (there’s a reason centers don’t lead fast breaks) and Paige ended up giving him the ball right back for a dunk that pushed UNC’s lead to 11 points, sent the crowd into hysterics and forced Maryland into a timeout.

The play was a turning point in the half, but what went overlooked in that moment was that Paige was calling for a lob.

That never happens.

“No,” Johnson said matter-of-factly when asked if he’s ever seen Paige do that before. “First time.”

“Maybe in pickup over the summer,” Joel Berry II said, “but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in an actual game.”

So when was the last time he called for a lob?

“Probably on the playground back in high school,” Paige said, adamant that he would have finished the play if the pass had been better. (Again, there’s a reason centers don’t lead fast breaks.)

And why was he calling for lobs?

“My body felt better than I thought it would,” he said, noting that he also tried to dunk on Maryland’s entire front line in the second half, drawing a foul in the process. “I was worried about how I would be conditioned because I only had one full practice of up and down.”

And that, more than anything, is the story from Tuesday night, that the Marcus Paige that Roy Williams currently has at his disposal is the Marcus Paige that took the ACC by storm as a sophomore; the Marcus Paige that was so dominant late in games that he earned the nickname ‘Second Half Marcus’. When he’s healthy, he’s far more athletic and dynamic that he gets credit for, and part of the reason for that is our short-term memory.

When we think of Paige, we think of the player we saw last season, the kid that failed to live up to the hype that he had entering the year. What we don’t think about is the fact that the kid was playing through plantar fasciitis in one foot and an ankle injury in the other foot that required offseason surgery. He didn’t complain about it. He didn’t use the injuries as an excuse or a crutch.

But the simple fact is that dealing with that pain in both feet — pain bad enough to relegate him to a stationary bike instead of the practice floor, pain that left him constantly limping around the apartment he and Johnson share — took away his quickness and explosiveness.

It’s back now.

“People don’t realize it, when Marcus is healthy?” Berry said, “I’ve seen it personally. In warmups today he did a windmill. Easy. Like it wasn’t nothing.”

So while we can sit here and listen to his teammates and coaches praise how valuable his presence is on the floor and what his leadership means to them and all those clichés and generalities that get thrown around by the sports media, what’s indisputable is that when Paige is healthy, he’s one of the best players in America. And missing one of the best players in America is the reason that North Carolina spent the first three weeks of the season looking like something other than the best team in America, or at least one of them.

Paige knows that.

He also knows that is what cost them that No. 1 ranking, that a 16-point collapse in a road game against one of the best mid-major programs in the country — a collapse that he could have helped prevent in a game that was scheduled to be his Iowa homecoming — is the reason that Tuesday night’s game didn’t feature the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country.

And that bothers him.

“I didn’t get a chance to stay No. 1,” Paige said. “Personally, I [do want it].”

“But I’m not too worried about that if we’re playing like the best team in the country.”

Northwestern beats No. 20 Michigan State in Big Ten opener

Nick King/Lansing State Journal / USA TODAY NETWORK
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EAST LANSING, Mich. – Boo Buie scored 20 points and Northwestern beat No. 20 Michigan State 70-63 on Sunday night in the Big Ten opener for both teams.

Chase Audige added 15 points and Ty Berry had 13 for Northwestern (6-2), which ended a two-game losing streak.

“Needless to say, this was a huge win for us,” coach Chris Collins said. “Coming off our performance in the ACC-Big Ten challenge, where we lost badly on our home floor (to Pittsburgh), I was really pleased with our resolve the past couple days.”

Mady Sossoko and A.J. Hoggard each had 12 points for Michigan State (5-4) and Joey Hauser added 10. The Spartans have lost two in a row, falling to Notre Dame earlier in the week.

Hoggard cut Northwestern’s lead to 64-63 with 46 seconds left. After a timeout, Buie scored on a layup with 23 seconds left.

“We got out-toughed,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said.

Northwestern took the lead late in the first half on a layup by Buie and never relinquished it, leading by as many as nine points.

“We put (the loss to Pittsburgh) under the rug,” Buie said. “We turned the page, just like we do with any win or loss. The season is so long you can’t get caught up on one single game. Just like tonight. We’re super happy with the win, but after tonight it’s over. You can’t dwell on things.”

The Wildcats went 21 of 24 on free throws, while the Spartans were 9 of 12.

“I was concerned about a knockout punch early,” Collins said. ‘I knew they would be revved up after the Notre Dame loss. They hit us early and got a seven-point lead, and then we settled down.”

UP NEXT

Northwestern: Hosts Prairie View A&M on Dec. 11

Michigan State: At Penn State on Wednesday night.

Miles, No. 7 Notre Dame women beat No. 3 UConn; Fudd hurt

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Olivia Miles had 21 points and eight rebounds for No. 7 Notre Dame, and UConn star Azzi Fudd suffered a knee injury in a collision with a teammate, as the Fighting Irish handed the third-ranked Huskies their first loss of the season, 74-60 on Sunday.

“I think she’ll be all right,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said afterwards of Fudd, who went into the day averaging 24.0 points, but finished scoreless on two shots over 13 minutes.

Fudd exited in the final minute of the first quarter after teammate Aaliyah Edwards fell on her. She returned midway through the second period to play four hobbled minutes, but sat the rest of the way as a precaution, according to Auriemma.

Maddy Westbeld had a season-high 17 points and nine rebounds for Notre Dame (7-1), which bounced back from a 74-72 loss to No. 20 Maryland three days earlier.

“I think Thursday’s loss really fueled us today,” Irish coach Niele Ivey said. “We learned a lot from that game. We have incredible scorers on our team, a lot of balance offensively, but it’s our defense that’s gonna win games, so that was our focus the last 48 hours. (The players) took the challenge and came out and played with heart and defensive intensity. I feel like if we can play that way, we can beat anyone in the country.”

Notre Dame shot 56% from the field while limiting the Huskies to 37%.

“We played very badly (Thursday), but we were still two points away,” Miles said, “so it’s kind of scary what we can do when we play really well.”

Led by Miles, the Irish roared to a 41-24 lead by intermission, outscoring the Huskies 30-11 over the final 11 minutes of the first half.

Miles scored 13 of Notre Dame’s 18 first-quarter points, going 6 of 7 from the field. Westbeld provided her scoring punch after averaging 5.2 points over her previous five outings.

Lou Lopez Senechal led UConn (6-1) with 21 points. Edwards added 14.

“We didn’t win the rebound battle and that hurt us,” said Auriemma, whose club was outboarded 39-26 and outscored in the paint. 46-16. “We just didn’t have enough scoring on the court and enough people playing at a real high level to get enough buckets when we needed them.”

The Huskies got as close at 49-44 at the 3:44 mark of the third quarter, but the Irish stretched their lead back to as high as 70-53 at the midway mark of the fourth period.

Notre Dame ended a seven-game head-to-head losing streak against UConn in regular-season play, prevailing for the first time since a triple-overtime decision in March 2013.

BIG PICTURE

UConn: The Huskies faced a top-10 opponent for the fourth time this season, but this one was their first true road game. If Fudd’s injury doesn’t turn out to be serious, UConn ought to still have a chance to do what it’s done for decades: craft a resume that will make them a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Notre Dame: The Irish, coming back from that loss at the buzzer to Maryland, showed that Thursday’s outcome may just be a blip on their promising season. Notre Dame matched last season’s win over No. 3 North Carolina State for the highest-ranked team it has beaten in its third year under Ivey.

UP NEXT

UConn: The Huskies host Princeton on Thursday before visiting Maryland next Sunday.

Notre Dame: The Irish have a couple apparent mismatches coming up as they visit Lafayette (2-7) on Thursday and host Merrimack (1-6) on Saturday.

Brink leads No. 2 Stanford women over No. 23 Gonzaga 84-63

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports
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STANFORD, Calif. – Gonzaga may be rolling out an injury-depleted roster, but the Bulldogs nevertheless left a lasting impression on their West Coast rival in Stanford.

And that leads the Cardinal to wonder if the two power programs might meet again on college basketball’s biggest stage come March.

“This is a team that is a Top-25 team,” Hall of Fame Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer said. “I think if we can do it, they’re going to be in Seattle (for the NCAA Tournament).”

Cameron Brink had 14 points and a season-high 16 rebounds and Brooke Demetre made a career-high five 3s and scored 17 points, leading second-ranked Stanford past No. 23 Gonzaga 84-63 on Sunday.

The Cardinal (10-1) have now won five straight games after falling to top-ranked South Carolina in overtime on Nov. 20.

“I kind of call Brooke my secret weapon,” VanDerveer said. “She is a really special young lady, and when you have both Cam out there and Brooke, it’s a two-headed monster.”

“She has one of the highest releases I’ve ever seen, one of the quickest releases,” Brink said of Demetre. “She can shoot it, and we’ve always had confidence in her.”

Hannah Jump hit four 3s and scored 14 points, and Haley Jones had 12 points for Stanford.

Short-handed Gonzaga (7-2), limited to seven players because of illness and injuries, had won three in a row.

The Zags kept the pressure on Stanford early in the game, thanks to a 20-point first half from Kaylynne Truong.

Truong shot 4 of 9 from deep and finished with a career-high 22 points.

Brynna Maxwell contributed 19 points. Yvonne Ejim, Gonzaga’s leading scorer, was held to two points in the first three quarters but added six points in the fourth.

“We try to focus on a leading scorer and try to limit them,” VanDerveer said. “But you can’t just focus on (Ejim) because they’ve got Truong, they’ve got Maxwell. . I think we did a much better job (on defense) in the second half.”

STAT OF THE GAME

The Cardinal were able to pull away due to a strong game from beyond the arc, making 15 3-pointers on 15 of 28 (53.6%) shooting. A season-high eight different Stanford players made a 3, led by Demetre’s five and Jump’s four.

BIG PICTURE

Gonzaga: Lost its fourth straight in the series with Stanford and dropped to 1-7 on the Cardinal’s home floor. The Zags haven’t won any matchups since a 79-73 victory at home on Dec. 2, 2018. … Despite playing short-handed, Gonzaga did not yield an easy win to its higher-ranked opponent, trailing by just one point after the first quarter before fading in the second half.

Stanford: Held a 37-23 rebounding advantage. … This win marked the beginning of a crucial stretch in the Cardinal’s season. Stanford’s next two games come against Tennessee – receiving votes in The Associated Press Top 25 poll – and No. 13 Creighton, followed by the start of Pac-12 Conference play against rival California on Dec. 23.

UP NEXT

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs return to McCarthey Athletic Center to start a five-game homestand, starting with a Tuesday matchup vs. Queens University of Charlotte.

Stanford: After a two-week break for final exams, the Cardinal will continue their seven-game homestand vs. Tennessee on Dec. 18.

Top-ranked Houston grinds out 53-48 win over Saint Mary’s

Chris Jones-USA TODAY Sports
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FORT WORTH, Texas – J’Wan Roberts scored 15 points, Marcus Sasser added 13 and top-ranked Houston held on to beat Saint Mary’s 53-48 on Saturday night.

The Cougars (8-0) won twice in their first week as the No. 1 team since the final poll of the 1982-83 regular season, when Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon led high-flying Phi Slama Jama.

Logan Johnson scored 17 points and Aidan Mahaney had 14 for the Gaels (6-3), who lost their third in a row following a 6-0 start.

Houston was the favorite to win it all in the second of three consecutive trips to the Final Four nearly 40 years ago, but lost to Jim Valvano and North Carolina State in one of the iconic championship games.

Coach Kelvin Sampson’s first top-ranked team is coming off trips to the Final Four and Elite Eight the past two seasons.

For the third straight year, the postseason path will start at Dickie’s Arena, where Sampson likes to bring his team during the regular season as prep for the American Athletic Conference tourney.

This victory in the Battleground 2k22 series improved the Cougars to 9-0 in the arena near downtown Fort Worth, where they have won AAC tournament titles each of the past two years.

Saint Mary’s whittled a 12-point deficit to a single possession when Mahaney hit a 3, and he made it a three-point game again at 46-43 with another from long range.

Roberts answered by backing down for a short jump hook before Sasser converted a three-point play to put the Cougars up 51-43.

Houston broke a 17-all tie with a 14-3 run to finish the first half, with Saint Mary’s going 1 of 11 from the field in that stretch against the vaunted Cougars defense. Both teams shot 37%.

BIG PICTURE

Saint Mary’s: Facing the No. 1 team isn’t foreign to the Gaels, who play in the West Coast Conference with Gonzaga. St. Mary’s is 2-7 against the Zags when they have the top ranking, with one of the victories coming last season.

Houston: The Cougars had no trouble in their debut with the No. 1 ranking, blowing out Norfolk State 100-52 at home Tuesday. A disciplined and tournament-tested opponent for the second game was just the threat Sampson’s club figured it could be.

UP NEXT

Saint Mary’s: Missouri State at home Wednesday.

Houston: North Florida at home Tuesday.

Clowney, No. 11 Alabama recover to beat South Dakota St

Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Freshman Noah Clowney’s breakout game – 22 points, nine rebounds, four assists and a steal – helped No. 11 Alabama recover from blowing a 20-point lead and beat South Dakota State 78-65 on Saturday night.

Clowney shot 8 of 17, including 5 of 12 on 3s, in his highest-scoring game of the season.

“We’ve encouraged him to shoot it, I’m glad he did,” Alabama coach Nate Oats said. “His senior year of high school, he started out pretty poorly from 3 then shot it 40% after that, so I kind of referenced that.”

Alabama (7-1) led 37-17 with 6 1/2 minutes left in the first half. South Dakota State (3-6) rallied to go ahead 51-50 on Alex Arians’ 3-pointer with 11 1/2 minutes remaining.

Nimari Burnett’s foul shot a minute later put the Crimson Tide ahead for good at 54-53. Alabama used a 9-0 run to pull away.

Mark Sears scored 19 points and Brandon Miller had 16 points and nine rebounds for the Crimson Tide

Alabama made 14 of its first 26 shots to build a big lead before it slipped away.

“I’m not going to call them mature, we still have some room to grow,” Oats said. “Our guys have to understand, no matter who we’re playing, even if their record isn’t great, they’re Division I basketball players, they’re good teams. Last year, we had issues with this going down the road.”

Charlie Easley and Arians each scored 17 points for the Jackrabbits. Zeke Mayo added 12 points and Matt Dentlinger contributed nine rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Sears continues to be a force at home for Alabama. In Alabama’s last three home games – wins over Liberty, Jacksonville State and South Dakota State – he has scored 22, 18 and 19 points, making at least three 3-pointers in all three games. Alabama’s next home game comes against a Memphis team that already has two wins over SEC competition.

SECOND HALF SPRING

South Dakota State coach Eric Henderson noticed that in Alabama’s first two home games, Longwood and Liberty both trailed by fewer than 10 points at halftime before losing by 21 and 36 points, respectively. He viewed the first five minutes of the second half as critical in both instances, seeing an Alabama team using the home environment to its advantage.

Henderson stressed to his team that it had to win those five minutes to have a chance. Down 42-35 at the break, it did, and ultimately took the lead.

“They really increase the pressure, they try to play a little faster, they get downhill and they really spray it,” Henderson said. “I thought we were getting some 50-50 balls, I thought we were playing with some confidence. There’s been a lot of schools to come in here and have a good first half and it ends up being a 30- or 40-point game.”

UP NEXT

South Dakota State stays on the road to face Montana on Tuesday.

Alabama takes a weeklong break before its second game against the current No. 1 team in the nation, this time a road game against Houston on Saturday. The Crimson Tide beat former No. 1 North Carolina in its first shot at the top-ranked team, winning 103-101 in four overtimes on Nov. 27.