CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) – Marcus Paige spent the first six games watching from the sideline as his North Carolina teammates had to figure out how to play without their injured floor leader.
His debut Tuesday night made the ninth-ranked Tar Heels look more like the team everyone expected to see.
The senior scored 20 points to help UNC beat No. 2 Maryland 89-81 in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, showing no ill effects from the broken bone in his right hand nor rust from the layoff.
Paige, the preseason Atlantic Coast Conference co-player of the year, assisted for the game’s first basket then buried a 3-pointer on the next possession — proof that he was ready to roll in an early season top-10 matchup.
“The first shot went down — it wasn’t a great shot — but I was feeling it, so I shot it,” Paige said. “Once that went in, I kind of relaxed and was like, ‘All right you’re fine, just play your game.'”
“It helps that I don’t feel any pain in my (non-shooting) hand. The way it’s taped, it’s not uncomfortable,” he said. “So after the first minute or so, I forgot about it and just played my game.”
Paige finished with a 7-for-12 shooting performance and made 4 of 5 3-pointers to go with five assists and one turnover in 34 minutes. Brice Johnson added 16 points for the Tar Heels, who shot 53 percent to hold off Melo Trimble and the Terrapins (6-1).
Trimble finished with 23 points and 12 assists to lead Maryland, which shot 51 percent but committed 22 turnovers that UNC converted into 21 points.
This was the headlining matchup for the interconference series, pitting two Atlantic Coast Conference charter members with Final Four aspirations. Paige and Trimble basically took this one over for much of the second half, putting on a show of high-level guard play to make this matchup worthy of the rankings.
Eventually, Paige and the Tar Heels — the preseason No. 1 in The Associated Press Top 25 before a loss at Northern Iowa — stretched out the lead and wrestled away control in the final 7½ minutes.
Maryland missed eight of its last 10 shots as UNC gradually pushed a 74-72 lead back to double figures after blowing a 13-point first-half lead.
“Paige was terrific, but I was really proud of our guys,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “I told our guys after the game: I don’t like our team; I love our team. And I didn’t love our team until tonight. It sounds funny. We were 6-0, and we lost the game, but my guys showed me a lot tonight.”
Maryland: Trimble had eight turnovers. … Maryland made 12 of 26 3-pointers. … The Terps never led by more than a point. … Longtime former coach and Hall of Famer Gary Williams was in the stands.
UNC: Paige drew a charge on Trimble in transition after a turnover with 3:03 left and UNC up 85-76. … Joel Berry II finished with 14 points. … The Tar Heels made 9 of 13 3-pointers. … Rapper J.Cole, an instate native of Fayetteville, sat courtside.
UNC’s rowdy crowd booed Rasheed Sulaimon on every touch since he’s a transfer from hated rival Duke. He responded with 18 points and five 3-pointers.
“That’s exactly what the crowd wanted me to do is make it a personal vendetta and get me out of my game,” Sulaimon said, “so I just tried to totally invest in our team and whatever the team needed me to do to help us win tonight.”
With Paige back in UNC’s starting backcourt, sophomore Theo Pinson moved back to the bench and played a season-low 18 minutes, while fellow guard Nate Britt played a season-low 10.
Maryland hosts St. Francis (Pennsylvania) on Friday.
UNC hosts Davidson on Sunday.