"If I get the first shot of the game, I've got to be ready and confident to knock it down," McDonald told reporters following the game of his thought process. "So I was ready and confident. I already had it in my mind that if I was open, I was going to shoot the ball; if I'm not, pass it around."
McDonald was open and drilled a 3-pointer that set off a Smith Center crowd that had been simmering for nearly two hours before tip.
Providing offensive firepower from long range is nothing new for the Memphis, Tenn. product. That's been his primary role, albeit inconsistently, throughout his Tar Heel career.
Against Duke, however, McDonald converted a career-high nine field goals and only one – that game opener – was a 3-ball. What the fifth-year senior did on Thursday was turn in his most complete game as a Tar Heel by penetrating, slashing and finding other ways to score.
"Our game plan from the get-go was to get spacing and be able to drive in and kick it out if somebody is open," McDonald said. "But if you're open and have an open lane, drive and lay the ball up. I've been so [about] the 3-point line and trying to get my threes off that I've been neglecting my mid-range game and driving to the basket, so I wanted to do something new that not a lot of teams have seen."
It's fitting then that McDonald's mid-range jumper with 3:54 to play gave UNC a lead at 62-60 that it would not relinquish.
McDonald scored a season-high 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting after totaling 19 points over his last three games.
"I knew it was going to come sooner or later," said junior forward James Michael McAdoo, who assisted McDonald on his opening 3-pointer. "Just the way he's been playing lately and the way he's been so even keeled throughout the season. The obstacles he's had to overcome and not playing well the last couple games, not shooting the ball well, Coach has been getting on him.
"As his teammates we're not going to stop passing the ball, not going to tell him to stop shooting the ball. Somewhere deep down inside he decided today was the day to be a man and hit shots."
McDonald, who missed the opening nine games of the season due to violating NCAA rules regarding impermissible benefits, kept his teammates close with 11 first-half points.
"Leslie was our guy tonight," sophomore guard Marcus Paige said. "He was able to knock down shots. He's been around for five years so to have him to have this good of a game against our rival is big for him. I'm really proud of him that he was able to play his best game of the year against Duke."
The Duke series hasn't been kind to McDonald. In six previous games against the Blue Devils, McDonald averaged 4.8 points on 33.3 percent shooting (10-of-30), including an 18.8 percent effort from 3-point range (3-of-16).
His play on Thursday – in his final home game against Duke – will forever overshadow those prior results.
"Leslie showed up tonight," UNC head coach Roy Williams said. "Leslie's been struggling, to say the least, and he made some big baskets for us."