There were few objective observers that believed the Tar Heels would defeat Wake Forest, 77-68, in the Demon Deacons’ building Saturday afternoon. If you did, you weren’t exactly using your noggin, as it wouldn’t have made sense.
Despite there being no indicators suggesting a performance like this was nestled within the Heels, they turned in one of their best overall acts of the season. In doing so, Carolina shrugged off a late charge by the Deacs, and even after countless missed free throws in the final minutes, the team prevailed.
This was a win that displayed the intangibles that have largely been absent over the last seven weeks: Spacing? Check. Shot selection? For the most part, check. Taking care of the ball? Double check. Defense? Check. Maturity? Check. Toughness? Check.
Check, check, check.
This was like the Titanic suddenly avoiding rough seas and finding itself docking somewhere in the tropics for a day. Why and how did the Tar Heels do this?
“I just think that we were a little more confident in this game,” said Marcus Ginyard, whose 13 rebounds were a career high. “Not necessarily more relaxed, just a little more focused and we just believed that we can play better than we have. We came out here tonight and our effort was on another level than it was in recent games.”
It really is inexplicable given UNC’s recent performances. The odds are this is more likely a one-game flare up than a season-turnaround, but it at least shows there’s life within the team.
But it didn’t exactly happen by osmosis.
“It is a product of recent practices because we’ve been emphasizing it more in a different manner,” Will Graves said.
A different manner? Meaning there’s been a change in approach to some degree by Roy Williams and his staff, which should send a positive signal to the bitter bunch who swear Williams has never deviated in any way from his usual norm. But there’s more to it, as well.
“We all came in here (UNC) pretty good players, so we had to have confidence in ourselves coming into college,” said Graves. “And it’s just a matter of putting it together… A lot of losses, it was only a matter of time before it came out. We haven’t quit, and today was the day for it to come out.”
What came out was a breakout performance by Leslie McDonald, whose 14 field goal attempts might be more surprising than his 16 points. McDonald played like he’s been through the ACC road wars as a key contributor many times over.
The Memphis native exuded confidence and mostly took quality shots and his defense wasn’t half-bad, either.
But it was McDonald’s scoring that book-ended a huge lift by John Henson that sent UNC to the locker room at halftime owning a rare lead. McDonald didn’t score until nearly nine minutes into the contest, but a conventional three-point play, a jumper, a free throw and a 3-pointer gave him nine points by the intermission.
This Leslie McDonald probably surprised the you-know-what out of Tar Heel Nation, but it was no shocker to his teammates, notably his mentor.
“I’ve been waiting for a performance like this, because Leslie and I go at it every day in practice,” Graves said. “He’s a scorer, he has a scorer’s mentality, and I feel like I’m a scorer as well, and we just go at it day after day.”
Henson blocked five shots, grabbed 12 rebounds and scored nine points in 21 minutes of action. His blocks, though, infused the Heels in the first half perhaps more than any stretch by an individual player this season.
“That’s one thing I pride myself on is bringing energy to the team with blocked shots and rebounding and all that,” he said. “You have to have energy, because sometimes energy creates plays that otherwise wouldn’t be there for you.”
But more important is that before McDonald’s baskets and Henson’s blocks, UNC was ready to play. It shrugged off seven weeks of lousy hoops that included only wins over lowly N.C. State and gave an occasional resemblance of so many baby-blue squads of the past.
“It looked like a halfway turn into a new team,” Graves said.