CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Short-handed again in a tight -- and often ugly -- contest, Marcus Paige and North Carolina proved they're tough enough to fight their way to another marquee nonconference victory.
As for Kentucky, coach John Calipari is still waiting for his Wildcats to grow up.
Paige scored 21 of his 23 points in the second half and James Michael McAdoo had 20 points, helping the 18th-ranked Tar Heels beat the 11th-ranked Wildcats 82-77 on Saturday.
It wasn't always pretty for the Tar Heels (7-2), from 19 missed free throws to seeing the Wildcats swat seven of their shots. Yet they managed to add another big name to their early wins against then-No. 1 Michigan State and then-No. 3 Louisville -- all coming while top scorer P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald sit out due to NCAA eligibility concerns.
"I think especially after getting the two big games earlier in the year, we had more confidence and belief we could get this one done," Paige said. "But at the same time, it's not a game everyone in the room would pick us to win. We had to come out with the mentality that we've got to play hard and be the aggressor and let the chips fall from there."
Yes, the Tar Heels have confounded Hall of Fame coach Roy Williams by also losing at home to Belmont and following the Louisville win with a loss at UAB. But one thing is certain: This bunch shows up in its biggest games.
J.P. Tokoto added 15 points for the Tar Heels, who shot 57 percent after halftime and scored 20 points off turnovers to finally wrestle control of a foul-filled game away from the Wildcats (8-3).
"I feel like with our team this year, mentally we're there and have built up that mentality that we're going to keep fighting, go to the next play and not worry about the last play," Tokoto said.
When it comes to the Wildcats, Calipari wants to see more from a team built around the nation's No. 1 recruiting class.
The Wildcats dominated the boards, scored 19 second-chance points and hit 29 of 43 free throws in a game with 56 personal fouls. But with star rookie Julius Randle struggling, Kentucky shot 41 percent and committed 17 turnovers while trailing for most of the second half in its first true road game this year.
Its two losses had come on neutral courts to ranked opponents, Michigan State in the Champions Classic last month and Baylor in last week's SEC/Big 12 Challenge.
"What we are right now is we're not a good basketball team," Calipari said. "And we're not a good team because our emotion is all based on our individual play instead of our team play. ... Our stuff is all based on 'Did I miss a free throw, did I get beat on the dribble, did I miss a shot, did I turn it over?'
"We've got to get through this. But we had chances to let go of the rope, and we didn't. We are what we are right now. We've got a long way to go."
UNC's 82 points and 48 percent shooting were the most by a Kentucky opponent all season. The Tar Heels also shot 45 free throws, with an aggressive McAdoo getting to the line 19 times while also leading the defensive effort on Randle.
"They came right after us," Calipari said. "Where we looked like, 'OK, we're ready to get away from them,' they came right back. ... They just kept fighting. I thought McAdoo just absolutely killed us."
Freshman Aaron Harrison scored 20 for Kentucky, but Randle finished with 11 points on 3-for-9 shooting while battling foul trouble. He also had five rebounds.
Paige managed just two points in the opening half, coming on free throws when referee Roger Ayers whistled Calipari for a technical foul with 1.9 seconds left. But Paige provided the steadying hand North Carolina desperately needed after halftime.
He knocked down a contested 3 over Randle to give UNC a 60-54 lead with 8:17 left, and then came up with an even bigger shot when he lofted a floater over shot blocker Willie Cauley-Stein with the shot clock winding down for a 70-65 lead with 1:41 to go.
Paige added an alley-oop pass in transition to Brice Johnson for a dunk, and then closed his afternoon by knocking down two free throws with 6 seconds left to make it a two-possession game.