Brice Johnson led six Tar Heels in double-figures, finishing with 16 points and 15 boards, as No. 5 North Carolina put the memory of the Duke loss far in their rear view with a 96-71 blowout win over No. 11 Miami on Saturday afternoon.
And it wasn’t even really that close.
UNC, at one point midway through the second half, held a 38 point lead, a definitive way to take over sole possession of first place in the ACC.
This is the kind of performance that we’ve been waiting for from the Tar Heels. Johnson was, once again, dominant in the paint while Justin Jackson scored 14 points, added eight assists and hit 3-for-4 from beyond the arc. As a team, the Tar Heels shot 9-for-20 from beyond the arc, and they also played some terrific defense for the majority of this game. That’s significant, because the knock on this team is that they’re not great defensively, particularly when their big men are pulled away from the rim. Miami’s strength offensively is their ability in ball-screens actions, something that UNC has a tendency to struggle with, but it didn’t matter on Saturday.
This was by far UNC’s best performance of the season on both ends of the floor and the first time they’re truly looked like a national title contender against elite competition since the win over Maryland back in early December.
And they did it without getting much of anything from Marcus Paige, who is still mired in a slump that has seemingly lasted for a month. Paige was 2-for-8 from the floor and finished with just seven points, which will drop his career-worst numbers even further. There’s two ways to look at this. On the one hand, North Carolina is currently sitting all alone in first place in the ACC despite the fact that Paige has yet to playing anything like the kid that was the 2015 Preseason National Player of the Year. In 14 ACC games, Paige is averaging 11.3 points and 3.3 assists while shooting 28.6 percent from three. In the 11 games since he had 30 points at Florida Starte, Paige has failed to reach double-figures seven times.
On the other hand, it may be time to start questioning whether this is just who Paige is at this point. Maybe not quite as bad as he’s been the last two games, but we’re now nearing two years since Paige has consistently played like an all-american. Last season he was injured, which is why we were expecting more out of him as a senior.
Whatever the case may be, what we saw on Saturday was the North Carolina team that keeps them in the conversation as a national title contender. This was, arguably, their ceiling.
And if Paige can ever rediscover the form he had as a sophomore, the Tar Heels will be far more likely to reach that ceiling.