Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 21, 2013
CHAPEL HILL— North Carolina endured an emotionally volatile week packed with a big win, a frustrating loss as well as the mixed outcome to the program’s long wait to learn the status of two players ensnared by NCAA troubles.
The No. 14 Tar Heels capped it all with a tough win, from surviving a potential winning 3-pointer from a shooter having a career day to reversing their season-long struggles at the foul line in overtime.
Marcus Paige scored 11 of his 17 points in the extra period to help North Carolina beat Davidson 97-85 on Saturday in the team’s final game before the Christmas holiday.
Paige missed his first six shots and didn’t score until the 8:17 mark of the second half, but took over late to help the Tar Heels (8-3) bounce back from Wednesday’s loss to Texas in a week that started with last weekend’s tough-it-out win against Kentucky.
Four days later, the NCAA cleared senior Leslie McDonald — who had missed the first nine games due to NCAA eligibility concerns — hours before tipoff of an 86-83 home loss to the Longhorns in a performance that left coach Roy Williams so angry that he scheduled a 5 a.m. practice the next day.
Then, on Friday, the school said it wouldn’t seek reinstatement from the NCAA for junior P.J. Hairston after last season’s leading scorer committed several rule violations largely focused on using cars linked to a felon and party promoter.
“That’s about as much drama as you can get in one week as a team, as a young team,” Paige said. “But I think we handled it well. We understood we had a four- or five-day break coming up so we just had to get through this game and get to the break so we could rejuvenate and come back and be ready to go.”
With Hairston watching from the bench, J.P. Tokoto had career-highs of 22 points and 11 rebounds to lead North Carolina. The Tar Heels needed two free throws from Paige with 29.3 seconds left to force OT, then dominated the extra period with Paige scoring in the lane to open overtime and hitting his only 3 moments later to put UNC in control.
UNC survived a career-best 33 points and seven 3-pointers from Davidson’s Brian Sullivan, who had a chance to win it in regulation after Paige’s tying free throws but missed a contested 3 over Nate Britt just before the horn.
The Wildcats (4-8) then went 2-for-10 from the field in overtime to fade late and lose their third straight.
“I think we got a little deflated when we didn’t put the game away in regulation,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said, adding that fatigue was a factor.
The Tar Heels have taken coach Roy Williams for a wild ride this year. They beat highly ranked Michigan State, Kentucky and Louisville without Hairston and McDonald while the school and NCAA reviewed their eligibility.
They also lost at home to Belmont and on the road to UAB, then nearly added another surprising loss to that list Saturday.
Tokoto — who has thrived in a bigger role due to Hairston’s absence — looked sharp from start to finish. The 6-foot-5 sophomore went 8-for-14 from the field and had five steals with four blocks in 35 minutes.
“My role has been the same: attack the boards, be an offensive threat when needed, be a defensive stopper for coach and the team,” Tokoto said. “Whatever we need, be that person. I had it in my mind I was going to be it with P.J. or without him.”
Paige assisted on Britt’s jumper early in the overtime, then hit two free throws before knocking down the 3 that pushed UNC to an 88-80 lead.
The Tar Heels, one of the nation’s worst free-throw shooting teams, secured the win with an unusually steady performance at the line. After missing 12 free throws in regulation, they went 11-for-12 in overtime.
North Carolina scored 27 points off 22 turnovers and shot 48 percent.
Davidson shot 46 percent behind Sullivan, who had had made just 5 of 28 3-pointers in his last four games before going 7-for-14 Saturday.
“I think this is what Brian is capable of doing,” McKillop said. “This is why we’re excited about him playing for us.”
De’Mon Brooks, the preseason Southern Conference player of the year, returned after missing six games with a groin injury to score 13 points in 28 minutes before fouling out in the final minute of regulation.