CHAPEL HILL – The chant inside the Dean Smith Center on Saturday sounded familiar to N.C. State.
The timing was off just a little bit.
In the Wolfpack’s home introduction, its players declare that, ‘This is our state.’
By that same slogan, the North Carolina student section reminded N.C. State which school has won 14 of the past 15 meetings as the Wolfpack prepared to walk off the floor.
The Tar Heels, behind the turnaround of freshman point guard Marcus Paige, did their part to prove it, too.
With a 76-65 victory, North Carolina took sole possession of third place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
“It was big for us,” Paige said. “A lot of the reason was because of the way we played against them last time. If left a bad taste in our mouths to come out in that big of a game and not play the way we wanted to.”
No one had to remind Paige how poorly he played the first time around in an eight-point victory by the Wolfpack.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams didn’t say a word to his young ball handler.
After committing three turnovers and handing out just four assists in the Tar Heels’ first matchup with N.C. State, Paige doubled his assist total and cut his turnover number by three.
The freshman finished with an 8:0 assist-to-turnover ratio Saturday afternoon.
“He’s just a tough little nut,” Williams said. “He’s going to be a big-time player for us.”
Paige showed the poise necessary to play point guard at North Carolina (19-8, 9-5 ACC), which has won 20 of the past 22 meetings against N.C. State, even while the rest of the Tar Heels struggled to start the second half.
Williams pulled all five of his starters after just a few minutes in the second half and with North Carolina leading by 10. N.C. State (19-8, 8-6) climbed back into the game with a 15-4 run to take the lead on a pair of free throws by point guard Lorenzo Brown, who equaled Paige with 12 assists and just four turnovers.
The next time down court, after a miss and an offensive rebound, Paige stepped up from the wing and knocked down a 3-pointer with starters James Michael McAdoo, P.J. Hairston and Reggie Bullock, who finished with a game-high 22 points and a team-high 13 rebounds, still watching from the bench.
“Every time (Paige) passes it to me, he tells me not to hesitate and shoot,” Bullock said. “When we were in transition and nobody picked him up, I was like, ‘Don’t ever hesitate if you are going to tell me to never hesitate.’ He pulled up and knocked it down and his confidence just started building from there.”
McAdoo, Hairston and Bullock checked in less than two minutes later and went on a 21-4 run to put the game out of reach, giving North Carolina a 13-point lead.
“We knew we just had to give the effort,” said McAdoo, who scored 14 points. “When we did that, as you can see, the results are to our liking.”
Hairston scored 12 points on 4-for-8 shooting. Scott Wood led N.C. State with 19 points, while C.J. Leslie had just six points and four rebounds.
“We have been preaching a sense of urgency and playing harder much more,” Williams said. “When you have an experienced team, you expect that they are going to do that without you. You don’t need to do that all the time.
“I believe that if you play with a sense of urgency, you have a chance.”
Earlier in the year, North Carolina might have folded after giving up a 10-point, second-half lead in just a few minutes. Instead, the Tar Heels regrouped behind an ever-evolving freshman point guard.
“I thought my team would get better and better as the season went along,” Williams said. “I think we are doing that.The attitude is probably the biggest difference in everything.”
Justin Hite can be reached at 407-9951 or firstname.lastname@example.org