CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) - Marcus Paige and his North Carolina teammates have endured so many wild swings - big wins, surprising losses, NCAA drama - that no one can blame their Hall of Fame coach for wondering what’s next.
And yet, a month after sitting at 0-3 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Tar Heels are surging after a rousing comeback against their fiercest rival that had their fans rushing to midcourt to celebrate when it was over.
Paige scored all 13 of his points in the second half, including two big baskets in the final 2½ minutes, to help UNC beat No. 5 Duke 74-66 on Thursday night for their eighth straight win.
Senior Leslie McDonald added a season-high 21 points for the Tar Heels (19-7, 9-4 ACC), who rallied from 11 points down in the second half to beat the Blue Devils (21-6, 10-4) in a rivalry game postponed more than a week by a winter storm.
It was by far North Carolina’s most impressive win during its run. Before Thursday, most had come against teams standing sixth or lower in the ACC standings.
“I’m not going to say we’re a finished product because we’ve got games left,” Paige said, “but man, we’re playing really well right now and we’re winning games in a lot of different ways.”
It marked UNC’s third win against a top-five team this season, along then-No. 1 Michigan State and then-No. 3 Louisville. Throw in then-No. 11 Kentucky in December, and the Tar Heels have beaten the top four teams from The Associated Press’ preseason Top 25.
Not bad for a team that never had top player P.J. Hairston due to NCAA violations for improper benefits.
“It was a bunch of guys that fought really hard,” coach Roy Williams said, “and I couldn’t be prouder of my team than I am right now.”
After filling the entire court after the horn, thousands of fans mobbed Franklin Street on the north end of campus to continue a celebration that came eight days later than they had hoped due to last week’s winter storm. The storm brought enough snow and ice to paralyze area roads and kept Duke’s bus from even making it to Durham to pick up the team for the 11-mile drive to the Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
The Tar Heels made it worth the wait for their fans by being tough enough to wrestle control from the Blue Devils. They shot 50 percent from the field after halftime and even made their last 10 free throws after a disastrous start at the line.
Jabari Parker and Quinn Cook both scored 17 points for Duke, which led 51-40 with about 15 minutes left before going ice cold from the field. The Blue Devils missed 13 straight shots and went scoreless for 6 minutes at one point, helping the Tar Heels climb back in it by mixing a 1-3-1 zone with man defense.
“They would just keep switching,” Cook said. “We’d come down, and we wouldn’t know what they’d be in. They kept us on our toes with their defense.”
Duke shot 36 percent (11 for 31) after halftime and made 5 of 22 3-pointers for the game,
Coach Mike Krzyzewski said he thought his team “played young” in the second half.