ATLANTA — There were nights not long ago, only a few months, when James Michael McAdoo lay awake, restless. He arrived at North Carolina amid such great expectations, yet he questioned whether the Tar Heels needed him at all.
Less than a semester into his first year of college, negativity and doubt raced through McAdoos mind. Eventually McAdoo came to believe, though, that he could accomplish the kind of thing he did here on Friday, when he helped lead top-seeded UNC to an 85-69 victory against No. 8 Maryland in the ACC tournament quarterfinals at Philips Arena.
The victory sends the Heels (28-4) into the tournament semifinals, where Saturday they will meet fifth-seeded N.C. State. UNC could be without John Henson, the junior forward who suffered a left wrist injury against Maryland.
Henson sustained the injury with 14 minutes and 59 seconds to play in the first half, after he used his left hand to brace a fall. He underwent a wrist x-ray at halftime, the results of which were negative, but he played just seven minutes.
Without Henson, and with senior forward Tyler Zeller hindered by foul trouble, UNC turned to its bench. In particular, the Tar Heels turned to McAdoo, who finished with 14 points and eight rebounds in a career-high 29 minutes of playing time.
I told him today that he was going to have to step up if Johns not able to play, said UNC guard P.J. Hairston, also a freshman. And I dont know whether John is going to play [Saturday] but I said, You have to step up. And he said, I will. And I take his word for it.
Hairston and McAdoo shared that conversation at halftime, when Hensons return was still in doubt. Henson never did return, and McAdoo continued his emergence during the second half while UNC gradually pulled away.
The Terrapins (17-15), who trailed 36-26 at halftime, cut the Heels lead to seven with about 12 minutes to play but never came any closer. McAdoo scored 10 of his 14 points during the second half, while Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock finished with 15 points apiece to lead UNC.
Inside the Tar Heels locker room, McAdoo was greeted by a crowd. Seventeen reporters gathered around his stall to hear what he had to say, while his teammates around him praised his recently-discovered confidence.
He knows what to do now, Henson said of McAdoo. He knows what spots hes comfortable in. He knows where he can hit the shots and hes attacking. And thats what you want.
Without Henson, and with Zeller limited by his foul issues, UNC coach Roy Williams experimented with his lineup. He had no other choice but to rely on his reserves, a group that included McAdoo, Hairston, Stilman White, Justin Watts and Desmond Hubert.
The Heels bench accounted for 25 points, the most it has scored against an ACC opponent this season. Afterward, Williams had difficulty articulating what, exactly, changed in McAdoo but he acknowledged the obvious that McAdoo appears a calmer, more poised player.
I cant tell you exactly [what] it is, but even when he was struggling, I kept putting him in the game, Williams said. So one day I finally told him, I said, hey I must think youre pretty good because youre not playing very well and I keep putting you in. So why dont you go ahead and play well?
McAdoo on Friday rewarded Williams patience. McAdoo recalled a conversation he shared about three weeks ago with UNC assistant coach Steve Robinson, who helped inspire McAdoo to change his practice habits and become more focused.
After the crowd around him thinned out on Friday, McAdoo said he felt at last that he belonged. Along the way he had sometimes needed to be reminded. McAdoo described the difference in his attitude and in his confidence as night and day compared to where they once were.
I can sleep at night, he said. So its all good.