CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina got away with Marcus Paige having one of his lowest-scoring games because Brice Johnson came through with one of his best.
Johnson had 27 points and 11 rebounds, and the second-ranked Tar Heels beat Wake Forest 83-68 on Wednesday night for their 10th straight win.
Despite not having any other double-figure scorers, the Tar Heels (17-2, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) extended their best start to conference play since 2000-01, coasting through a second half in which they made just nine field goals and shot 26.5 percent.
“We had the mentality that we were going to outscore them, not defend them,” Johnson said. “We’ve got to not have that mentality going forward.”
The Tar Heels never trailed and overcame one of their worst shooting performances of the season (38.4 percent) by forcing Wake Forest into 19 turnovers and turning them into 21 points.
North Carolina — which appears in line to return to No. 1 after Oklahoma’s loss earlier this week — reeled off 12 straight points late in the first half to build a comfortable lead, then went up by 27 after halftime.
That all happened despite very little falling for Paige, who Johnson called “a ticking time bomb waiting to happen.” Coach Roy Williams said he’s “never had a player that I’ve had more confidence in in my entire life than Marcus Paige.”
The star guard missed his first seven shots before he flipped one in from the lane with about 5 1/2 minutes left. He matched a career low with two points and is a combined 3 for 25 since his 30-point game at Florida State.
“As long as we win, I’m fine,” Paige said. “I’ll be ready when I’m needed to make shots. Tonight, we didn’t need me to make very many shots. … We just played better than them tonight, so I’m not too worried about (the slump).”
It sure helped to have Johnson, who was 8 of 12 in matching the second-highest-scoring game of his career, surpassed only by the 39 points he put up against Florida State on Jan. 4. He also matched a career high by making 11 free throws.
Bryant Crawford scored 18 points and Devin Thomas had 17 for the Demon Deacons (10-8, 1-5), who fell to 5-21 in the Dean Smith Center. They lost their third straight overall and have dropped five of six in January.
“In the second half, we did some better things,” coach Danny Manning said, “but at that point it was too far in the ballgame.”
The Tar Heels broke this one open with that big run late in the first half, a burst started by Johnson’s back-to-back buckets — including a pretty turnaround hook shot from the baseline. Luke Maye had two tip-ins during the run, including one that made it 42-23 with just under 3 minutes left before the break.