Paige scored a career-high 23 points to help the Tar Heels push their way past Holy Cross 62-54 on Friday night in the Hall of Fame Tipoff event, the sophomore's second strong scoring performance.
Paige scored 16 points after halftime and joined with fellow sophomore Brice Johnson to give the Tar Heels (2-0) the spark they needed to break free from a 35-all tie. And with leading scorer P.J. Hairston and senior guard Leslie McDonald out indefinitely due to NCAA eligibility concerns, the burden to provide some perimeter scoring punch is falling heavily to Paige as he plays more on the wing than as a full-time point guard last year.
"It's obviously a work in progress because it's something I haven't had to do here yet," Paige said. "But at the same time, you're a basketball player. If the team needs you to step up and be a scorer, then that's what you have to do."
Paige struggled with his shot through much of his rookie season before coming on in the final month or so. He scored in double figures in consecutive games twice last year, but had 14 points with four 3-pointers against Oakland then went 8-for-17 with three 3-pointers in 36 minutes Friday.
"Marcus is a good scorer, but Marcus is a basketball player," coach Roy Williams said. "He has tremendous savvy, he's good defensively. I've got to try to get him more breaks where he doesn't play 36 minutes in a game."
Johnson, a lean 6-foot-9 forward, added 12 points for his second straight double-figure scoring game after going the last 21 games of his freshman season without reaching double figures.
The duo scored 10 points during the 12-0 run that finally gave the Tar Heels some cushion midway through the second half against the Crusaders (1-2), who hung tough despite a miserable shooting game.
Malachi Alexander scored 13 to lead Holy Cross, which shot 29 percent and missed 17 of 22 3-pointers.
Holy Cross was coming off a 122-118 double-overtime win against Sacred Heart on Wednesday, when the Crusaders knocked down 11 3-pointers and got a combined 61 points from Cullen Hamilton and Dave Dudzinski. But shots just wouldn't fall against North Carolina, keeping the Crusaders from pressing the Tar Heels for a possible upset.
Dudzinski finished with 11 points on 4-for-12 shooting, while Hamilton had eight on 2-for-11 shooting.
"We just played in a game where we scored 122 points," Holy Cross coach Milan Brown said. "Tonight we were in a rock fight."
Then again, it wasn't like North Carolina looked sharp, either.
UNC shot 27 percent (9 for 33) in the first half, but nearly 52 percent after halftime to finally take control. Williams said his team played with more patience to look for better shots, while Johnson said the Tar Heels played selfishly early.
"It just seemed like everybody was taking one-dribble shots and one-pass shots instead of doing like we did in the first game where we were passing it around, passing it inside, passing it out," Johnson said. "We weren't moving the ball the way we should have."
The Tar Heels led 11-1 early as Holy Cross misfired on 16 of 18 shots to open the game. But with UNC shooting badly, too, the Crusaders were able to crawl their way into a 25-all tie just before halftime.
Holy Cross led 32-29 on Justin Burrell's basket with 16:39 left and the teams were tied at 35 before Paige and Johnson sparked the decisive run. Johnson showed a nice touch with three baskets in the paint, while Paige hit a reverse layup and a jumper around a screen to push the lead to 47-35 with 9 minutes left.
Paige hit four free throws in the final minute to help seal the win, including two with 58.5 seconds left after Holy Cross had clawed to within 56-50.
"We lost Paige a couple of times and he hurt us," Brown said. "He loosened the paint up. And to that point, we were able to contract our defense and just keep everybody out of the lane and just fight. But once he made a few jump shots, he loosened some things up."
The Tar Heels play Belmont here Sunday in the Tipoff, then face Richmond next weekend in the tournament's semifinal round in Uncasville, Conn.