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Heels Complete Final Tune Up Before ACC Play

North Carolina concluded non-conference play Monday against UNC-Greensboro and now sets its sights on the ACC opener.

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Late December non-conference games can be a monotonous drag for teams amid exams and holidays. Getting everyone on the same page and back in the groove is the main function of these nights, but getting there can nonetheless be a chore.

North Carolina’s 96-63 win over Wes Miller’s UNC-Greensboro Spartans will look like most any other easy win on the Tar Heels schedule. But a game against a team modeled after your own, three days after Christmas and just two days before the start of the ACC season, is the definition of a grind-it-out affair. It’s the type of game where tuning the engine is the ultimate purpose.

“The game right before the first conference game of the year is always a difficult game,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said postgame, “I thought we got through it fine.”

“There were several things to like, there’s no question about that. My No. 1 goal was to keep Marcus (Paige) between 20 and 24 minutes and we got him at 21, so I achieved my biggest goal of the game.”

Paige (14 points) joined five other Tar Heels in double figures led by Brice Johnson’s 16-point, 16-rebound performance, and 55 percent shooting for the game checked off more of Williams’s boxes.

While Johnson’s effort has been questioned ad nauseum, the senior’s fourth straight great stat sheet moves him another rung up the All-ACC ladder. And even with those 16 boards, Johnson was not content when taken out of the game late.

“I wanted four more. I’ll be honest, I wanted to get 20,” Johnson said when asked about his short conversation with Coach Williams when exiting the game, “I asked coach if I could just go back and get four more….I want to get 20 rebounds in a game here one time.”

With news that Kennedy Meeks will likely remain on the shelf for at least the rest of the week, Johnson knows his improved play during the grind of exams and the holiday break must continue.

“I had to be more aggressive with Kennedy being out,” said Johnson, “I know I can really do big things. I just have to demand the ball and be more aggressive.”

The final piece of the puzzle was Paige, and from the tap, he put to rest any worries or questions of his health, and did so with the intent to stop those very inquiries.

“Part of it was so you guys wouldn’t ask me so much about how my ankle was doing or if it would be a problem,” Paige said laughing when asked about his aggressive start. “And it was good for me because I’ve been limited in practice and it felt good coming in and getting it loose in warm-ups. But I wanted to test it and be aggressive…having it feel good was a great sign for me because I don’t want to deal with any of that.”

For Paige and Johnson, seniors now done with their final preseason tune up, the ACC arrives Wednesday, with the Clemson Tigers and their 0-fer streak coming to the Smith Center followed by Georgia Tech and at Florida State in the next week. The grind is here, a fact not lost on the leader of the team. A fact he welcomes.

“I like playing the tough games,” Paige said, “I am all about the tough and competitive games. I’m ready to hit ACC play.”

“These (last two games) have been good, especially coming off break to tweak some things and get us ready and get our confidence up. But it’s more fun when it’s the grind in the ACC, if you ask me.”

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