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No. 2 North Carolina hangs on, but Paige’s struggles continue

Brice Johnson, Zach Leday

North Carolina forward Brice Johnson (11) goes up for a basket against Virginia Tech forward Zach LeDay (32) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Blacksburg, Va. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)


Entering the season, the question for No. 2 North Carolina was who would step forward alongside senior guard Marcus Paige to shoulder the load offensively. The most prominent answer to that query has been senior forward Brice Johnson, who’s emerged as an All-America candidate thanks to longer stretches of consistent play in the front court. And others have made strides as well, including guard Joel Berry II and forward Isaiah Hicks.

However, even with those developments North Carolina needs to be at his best if they’re to win the national title. Sunday afternoon the Tar Heels managed to hold off an improving Virginia Tech squad 75-70 in Blacksburg, but for the fourth consecutive game their feature offensive option struggled to get going.

Paige shot 2-for-10 from the field against the Hokies, and as the game wore on the senior didn’t look all too confident when it came to taking shots. Add in Berry’s 5-for-17 day, and the North Carolina perimeter attack was lacking offensively from a scoring standpoint. Over the last four games Paige is shooting 5-for-35 from the field, a far cry from what we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from him throughout his college career.

The good news for UNC is that even with Paige’s struggles he remains a player to be respected by opposing defenses, and against Virginia Tech he tallied seven assists. During the current slump Paige has 20 assists to just six turnovers; he’s done a good job of not getting reckless in looking to end the cold shooting spell, instead allowing for others to make their mark offensively.

Against Virginia Tech Johnson posted yet another double-double, scoring 19 points and grabbing 17 rebounds, and Nate Britt contributed eight points off the bench. North Carolina has a host of options who can pick up the slack offensively on any given night, but there’s no denying that they need Paige to rediscover his shooting stroke.

After getting off to a good start from three this season the Tar Heels are shooting just 30.6 percent from deep, and against Virginia Tech they shot 3-for-23 with Berry responsible for all three makes.

That impacts spacing and the amount of room players such as Johnson and Kennedy Meeks have to operate in the paint, and if teams can sag defensively North Carolina loses that advantage. Against Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels experienced some offensive lulls as a result, and it nearly cost them the win.

That isn’t something you can pin solely on Paige, but he is North Carolina’s best shooter. Given his track record one would expect Paige to get going eventually, and when that happens the ACC’s best team becomes that much tougher to defend.