UNC was figured to emerge as a Final Four contender thanks in part to the talent of the ballyhooed quintet. But to be frank, little had been on display through the Tar Heels’ first seven contests, and the team didn’t much resemble a national contender.
But in Carolina’s 89-82 victory over Michigan State on Tuesday night at the Smith Center, the group gave by far its best collective effort and were integral in UNC’s seventh win in eight tries on the young season.
“This is a great example of something we’ve talked about all along, and that’s trying to get the freshmen involved, really trying to get them going, really trying to get them thinking the game the way that we want to play it,” Marcus Ginyard said. “And tonight things just went the way they should have.”
David and Travis Wear have mostly played to their expected levels, while the most notable and important newcomers – John Henson and Dexter Strickland - hadn’t yet put together quality performances. Aside from the flashes Henson showed in a seven-point outing in Sunday’s win over Nevada, they hadn’t really been a blip on the radar.
Panic was beginning to set in among some fanatical baby-blue bloods, wondering if the group would make a major impact this season.
That all changed on this night, as the freshmen took over in perhaps the most important stretch of the game.
With the score tied at 19-19 and Michigan State playing well, the newbies scored 11 straight Tar Heels’ points in an 11-2 run to forge a 30-21 lead with 9:03 left in the half. It took all of three minutes to happen and included baskets by four difference rookies. Henson, in particular, was key during the stretch.
He had already given UNC a lift earlier in the half with his floor play, but in this key run the 6-foot-10 string bean scored on a put-back slam off a Deon Thompson miss, blocked a Delvon Roe shot attempt, and registered a steal that led to a Carolina basket.
This was the Henson so many had heard about but just hadn’t yet seen.
“It was great to see John play like that,” said Ed Davis, who finished with a career-high 22 points. “He has done those things in practice and it was just a matter of time before everyone else saw what he can do.”
Roy Williams said there was a carry-over from Henson’s performance against Nevada.
“His first half the other night against Nevada he was really good – the second half he wasn’t quite as effective,” Williams said. “A lot of John’s is attentive to detail… He’s going to be a big-time player. He’s got a wonderful attitude about the whole thing.”
Henson finished with four blocks, including a 3-pointer attempted by Chris Allen in the second half, three rebounds, a drawn charge and that follow-up slam.
Both Wears scored and Dexter Strickland sank his first 3-pointers of the year, both of which ignited the capacity crowd and infused the point-guard trainee confidence that lasted the rest of the night.
“This is a new experience for me, so each game I’m gaining more confidence and that’s what will help me in the future,” a smiling Strickland said. “So each game that goes by will help me improve on my game.”
Strickland’s line for the night: Nine points; three assists; zero turnovers; two blocks; a steal and 14 crucial minutes. Among his points were three that came on a 25-footer as the first-half clock expired.
Ginyard acknowledged there was much less drop off at the point than previously. He gives Strickland plenty of credit.
“Dexter’s had a tough time getting in and playing the point, not really used to playing the point position,” Ginyard said. “But tonight he was a lot more relaxed, got out there and took care of the ball and did some positive things for us.”
Overall, the freshmen - which include Leslie McDonald, whose appearance in the first half after not getting into Sunday’s game registers as a positive by itself – combined for 15 points, 12 rebounds, four assists, and six blocked shots in 46 minutes.
“I knew from day one during pick-up games that they were going to be good and really help us because they are talented, they all play hard and now they are starting to know their roles,” Davis said. “So this came at a great time.”