But the Tar Heel faithful did their part in welcoming the big man back to Chapel Hill with a loud ovation when he subbed in for Tyler Hansbrough at the 16:33 mark. It was Stepheson’s first game action since the 90-58 victory over Valparaiso, after going home for nearly a week to be with his father.
“It definitely felt like I was at home,” Stepheson said, when asked about the fans’ initial response. “It felt great just being on the court and having the crowd behind you. Everyone has their support and that just really feels good.”
The 6-foot-9, 235-pounder was full of nerves on Wednesday, fouling out in eight minutes while contributing two points and two rebounds.
“I definitely felt overanxious out there,” Stepheson said. “Just wanting to do a whole lot, and doing too much at times, I guess. I was just real excited and overanxious, so I think the time mad a difference, but not enough to make you really rusty.”
His head coach agreed.
“I think he was probably a little anxious,” Roy Williams said. “He was gone a week and missed a couple games. I felt badly for him because he had five fouls called on him and they were not hard fouls. It was a frustrating night for him, but we are really happy to have him back."
It didn’t help that Stepheson’s first task of the New Year was squaring off against UNCA’s 7-foot-7, 360-pound Kenny George.
“[It] felt more like he was 8-feet,” Stepheson said. “It was tough, but I tried to just to stay against him and stay strong. It was hard – he is pretty good. It was a challenge, but I was excited about it. [It’s] not every day that play against somebody like that.”
Speculation had surfaced that the sophomore may never make it back to Chapel Hill once he left for California last week, but he put those rumors to rest after the game.
“Coach Williams told me to come home and see what was going on, and then go from there, but I knew I was going to come back,” Stepheson said. “It was difficult coming back, leaving my family, but I always knew I was going to come back.”
Watching North Carolina’s thrilling overtime victory at Clemson on Sunday night only made the desire to return that much greater.
“It was just a weird feeling,” Stepheson said. “It was like, ‘I should be in that game right now – we should be up by a lot more if I was in there.’ But it was a crazy game. Wayne hit a big shot. It was just the weirdest feeling watching that.”
His return is essential in the Tar Heels’ quest for a second straight ACC Championship, as well as a shot at a second national championship in four years. But for now, Stepheson is determined to slowly work back into the rotation and regain some semblance of his daily routine.
“There is definitely a whole lot going on right now,” Stepheson said. “It’s hard staying focused about things, but at the same time, once you get through something, it only makes you stronger.”