The cloud of uncertainty around the basketball program has finally lifted and Roy Williams and his players now know what hand they’ve been dealt for the remainder of the season.
The questions didn’t end and probably won’t for some time. The postgame locker room after the Tar Heels improved to 8-3 with a 97-85 overtime win over Davidson on Saturday
was as much about who didn’t play as who did. J.P. Tokoto’s career night, Marcus Paige’s microwave moment and James Michael McAdoo’s nine made free throws took a back seat most of the time due to the question of the night – has this team gotten any closure now that the fates of Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston are finally known?
“I feel like Coach has done a great job of telling us, ‘We have to play with what we have,’ because we didn’t know what would happen to those two guys,” Nate Britt said. “I feel like all along we have been doing a good job with the things happening with those two and just trying to play with what we have. I feel like it hasn’t changed that much, but knowing what’s done is done might help us out a little bit.”
It’s never easy for a team to lose its best player. Friday’s announcement cemented that for this group. Reactions to the news may be different depending on which player you talk to and ‘closure’ comes differently for different people. One clear point is moving forward as a team and with this season that is the only thing that matters now.
“I definitely think there is a sense of closure,” McAdoo said. “But I think now it just sets in that we do realize that we are not going to have P.J. back but that we do have Leslie back. I think that is more so a huge relief for some people, but with P.J. it is definitely an obstacle so we are just going to try to look at it as an opportunity to carry on the team for him.”
More than anyone, the early absence of McDonald and Hairston affected Marcus Paige. After a great start to the season and a tough loss to Texas, Paige shook off the past week and again led the Heels to a tough win.
“It was a tough week for us because P.J. had a great preseason, a great offseason,” Paige said after the game, “He’s one of our brothers, we spend so much time together, and then to hear that he is not going to be with us, it really hurts. It was good for us to have this game and win as a moving on, and I think he’s going to be just fine, but there was some sort of closure, I guess.”
Tokoto’s career night against Davidson was one more step for the sophomore in filling the void left by Hairston’s ineligibility, and like his teammates, turning the page is not a problem.
“It hasn’t been too rough,” Tokoto said when asked about the past week,.“We have tough guys on this team. We waited to hear about it and everyone was sad. We talked to (P.J.), just the players. We are kind of using him as our fuel right now.
“People are different. Some guys are quiet, some are more talkative,” Tokoto continued when asked about a player’s only meeting with Hairston. “The overall mood is we felt for P.J. To not be able to play college basketball anymore, that’s tough. Especially for a guy that lives and dies by the ball. Ball is life for him and all of us. We know P.J. is going to be fine, he’s tough.”
While Hairston remained a fixture on the Carolina bench again Saturday night, Roy Williams dismissed the Hairston/closure question, instead focusing on the next task at hand for his team.
“Now we are ready to see Santa Claus,” Williams said, “Then we’ll come back here and practice on the 26th and try to get better.”