Tulane North Carolina Basketball

North Carolina's Luke Maye (32) drives against Tulane's Blake Paul (23) during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017, in Chapel Hill, N.C. (Robert Willett/The Herald-Sun via AP) ORG XMIT: NCDUS321

Robert Willett

Tulane junior center Blake Paul spent most of the first half of Monday night’s game against Nicholls State in a familiar spot—on the bench with foul trouble after putting up a string of zeroes.

He never came off the court in the second half, and the Green Wave (8-3) will be a much better team if that version of Paul continues to show up, starting with Thursday’s game against South Alabama (6-5) at Devlin Fieldhouse in the final tune-up for American Athletic Conference play.

The tip-off is at noon because the Tulane women are playing host to a tournament doubleheader later in the day.

Paul, a 6-foot-9 product of Landry-Walker, scored eight points, grabbed seven rebounds, blocked two shots and handed out two assists in the final 20 minutes against Nicholls as Tulane rallied from a 20-point deficit to win 76-69. He was a big-time presence on both ends of the floor.

“They came out and punched us in the mouth,” he said. “At first it didn’t look like we were going to punch back, but we did. We kept punching them and kept punching them and we won the fight ultimately.”

The light may have come on for good for Paul in the last three games. He appeared overwhelmed when he arrived in 2015-16, averaging one foul every five minutes, scoring 2.3 points per game and finishing with two assists in 368 minutes.

He failed to improve last year under new coach Mike Dunleavy, boosting his scoring average slightly to 2.9 but dropping off in rebounding (2.2 compared to 2.5) shooting percentage (.419 compared to .547) and blocked shots (12 compared to 30).

A starter for the first time this season, he followed a 10-point, eight-block outing against Southeastern Louisiana with a miserable six-game stretch in which he scored five points on 1-of-9 shooting, grabbed 13 rebounds, blocked four shots and fouled out once.

Since then, he has bounced back with 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting, 18 rebounds and five blocks against Southern, Florida State and Nicholls.

“He’s played great the last three games,” senior forward Cameron Reynolds said. “We need that from him every single time because if he does that, we’re threats from all five spots on the floor. As long as he doesn’t get in foul trouble, he’s a dominant force in there.”

Paul complimented Dunleavy for having patience with him during his downturn. Under Dunleavy’s guidance, he has learned to see the floor, not rush his moves and find the open man when he is guarded well.

“The jump from high school to college was big, and I’m finally getting accustomed to it,” he said. “I’m finding my rhythm. That always was the problem last year. I was overthinking things, and now I’m just playing basketball.”

Paul, never a natural scorer, has crafted his drop steps and short hook shots with both hands. Still, his best work comes on the other end of the floor.

With freshman big men Bul Ajang and Buay Koka too raw to contribute, Paul is Tulane’s lone interior presence defensively. His 19 blocked shots are more than double the total of anyone else.

“I take my role very seriously,” he said. “I know I should be the defensive anchor for this team, always protecting the rim.”

During Tulane’s decisive 20-0 run against Nicholls, he sprinted down the court after a turnover and swatted a lay-up attempt out of bounds on a fast break. That was part of a seven-minute scoreless span for the Colonels, largely because they could not get the ball past Paul.

“The initial playing time for him is dependent on his ability to defend the low post, alter shots, help defense and rebounding,” Dunleavy said. “When he does that, we are a really good team.”

Follow Guerry Smith on Twitter, @guersmith