Tokoto Shines Early

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – No. 16 North Carolina has recently relied on role players to elevate their play in the absence of P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald. J. P. Tokoto became the third Tar Heel in as many games to answer that charge in UNC's 63-59 loss at UAB on Sunday.

Against Richmond, it was Brice Johnson that complemented Marcus Paige's perimeter barrage with career highs in points (24) and rebounds (12). Against Louisville, Kennedy Meeks attempted to one-up his teammate with career highs in points (13), rebounds (12) and assists (7).

Tokoto's performance at Bartow Arena is unlikely to earn as much praise due to the nature of upsets, but his career-high 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting was critical in keeping UNC within striking distance until the defense ramped up and Paige found his shot in the second half.

The sophomore wing was active early, knocking down a jumper on UNC's third possession and blocking a shot on UAB's fourth. After the Blazers built a 10-point lead at 24-14, Tokoto stole the ball from C.J. Washington following a rebound and slammed it down to get the Tar Heel bench on its feet.

UAB eventually increased its lead to 33-18 before Tokoto scored five straight points on a jumper and a trey to whittle the margin back to 10.

Tokoto finished the first half with nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, including UNC's lone make from 3-point range.

"He did a great job shooting shots that he's comfortable making from mid-range," Paige told reporters following the game. "… He was our only consistent offense in the first half. It was good to see him take advantage of that opportunity."

While Johnson and Meeks provided offense in the post, Tokoto delivered from the wing, which was a welcome sight for a Tar Heel team that's been lacking in that area.

"He was knocking down his shots," Johnson said. "That's what he works on every day. That's what we need. We need somebody to come out there and score from the wing because we don't have anybody right now except for Marcus. We need some scoring."

Tokoto provided another energy bolt on the receiving end of a Nate Britt alley-oop pass as UNC started its plodding second-half rally.

"As far as the shots, they were open, they were good shots, so that's the work from the summer coming into play and knocking those down," Tokoto said.

As well as Tokoto played offensively, UNC head coach Roy Williams pointed to one specific column on the stat sheet as an area in need of improvement.

"We've got to get him to the offensive rebounds more," Williams said. "I think he's potentially one of the greatest offensive rebounders I've ever coached and we've got to get him more than one."

Tokoto agreed with his coach's assessment.

"It was just ball watching," Tokoto said. "There were probably a lot of boards that I should have had and definitely could have gotten, but instead of going to the boards, I just kind of watched. That's what Coach doesn't want… It's an easy fix."

As the Hairston and McDonald situation lingers in uncertainty, UNC will need strong outings from its role players to offset their absences. And while the Tar Heels ultimately lost on Sunday, Tokoto's play could serve as a foundation in the weeks to come.

 

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