Sparking the Offense

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. ---For a team struggling to find an identity -- and scorers - the common cliché "any win is a good win" certainly fits. On Friday night against Holy Cross, it took Marcus Paige's leadership and Brice Johnson's energy to ignite the offense and fuel the key second-half run.

After the first 20 minutes of the season against Oakland saw the Tar Heels shoot 74 percent from the field and hit 23 shots, the first half Friday night was simply an exhibition in bad basketball – from both teams. Poor shooting is the obvious takeaway with the Heels making 27 percent from the floor while the Crusaders shot it at a 22-percent clip.

While a great shooting night can briefly mask obvious issues, 27 percent from the field only begins to tell the story of Carolina's first 20 minutes. Zero emotion, zero energy and poor execution most accurately tell the tale, and one quote from the post game locker room accomplishes the same more directly.

"That was the ugliest first half of basketball I've ever seen."

The sophomore Johnson is animated. Like it or not, it's how he 's playing the game this year so it shouldn't come as a surprise that those words above are his. And when he saw the Heels trending in the wrong direction he, along with Marcus Paige, turned the tenor of the game.

"My team was dead," Johnson said. "I had to do something. I can't stand playing dead ... we needed to play with a lot more energy.

"Me and Marcus are like brothers. We fed off each other out there. I dunked and screamed and he said 'I feel it, lets go!'"

When the 25-25 halftime score morphed into a 35-35 game with 13:42 left, oddly enough, it was a Johnson missed dunk that woke up the Heels. Seconds later, a Johnson block led to a Johnson score. A Luke Davis steal led to another Johnson bucket. Johnson's rebound led to a J.P. Tokoto, pushing the Carolina lead to 41-35, forcing Holy Cross coach Milan Brown to call timeout.

"(Johnson) is somebody we feed off," Paige said of the second half run. " When he gets a dunk or if he gets a couple jump hooks, he gets excited and we feed off that. Brice does a great job of providing that little spark, especially offensively."

Two Paige buckets sandwiched another Johnson field goal to cap the 12-0 run that put the Heels out in front, 47-35. While Carolina settled down on the offensive end and started moving the basketball, the Crusaders did just the opposite, going stagnant and becoming a team relying solely on three-point shots make a comeback.

Holy Cross would end the game 5-of-22 from behind the arc and 29 percent from the field in total. Not the recipe for a win against North Carolina, even if the Heels are struggling to find that elusive identity.

"We tried to battle," Coach Brown said of his team, "but when you're trying to keep those guys off the glass ... it wears on your legs. I think their athleticism and strength kid of wore us down for how hard we had to compete on the other end.

"Two days ago we played a game where we scored 122 points, tonight we ran into a rock fight."

For North Carolina, this game provided two clear points going forward.

One, this team belongs to Paige. Leading the team with 23 points was only part of the equation. His takeover of primary ball handling responsibilities down the stretch allowed the Heels to execute with some semblance of efficiency in the second half.

And, two, to compete on a nightly basis, playing dead against anyone will not get the job done. Johnson led the way Friday night with his second double-figure output in as many games. If lessons are better learned in ugly losses, the 62-54 win over the now 1-2 Crusaders from Holy Cross should be a shining example of that.

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