ATLANTA — There were nights, only a few months ago, when North Carolina freshman James Michael McAdoo lay awake, restless. He faced such great expectations when he arrived in Chapel Hill, 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 McAdoo's mind. Eventually he came to believe that he could perform at the level he reached Friday, when he helped boost top-seeded North Carolina to an 85-69 victory over No. 8 Maryland in the ACC tournament quarterfinals at Philips Arena.
The victory sent the Tar Heels (28-4) into the tournament semifinals, where they will meet fifth-seeded N.C. State today at 1 p.m. But North Carolina could be without John Henson, the junior forward who suffered a left wrist injury against Maryland.
Henson sustained the injury with 14 minutes and 29 seconds to play in the first half, after he used his left hand to brace a fall. The 6-11 junior underwent a wrist x-ray at halftime, the results of which were negative.
With Henson out, and with senior forward Tyler Zeller hindered by foul trouble, North Carolina 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 John's not able to play," said North Carolina freshman guard P.J. Hairston. "And I don't know whether John is going to play (today), 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 Henson's return was still in doubt. Henson never did return, and McAdoo continued his emergence during the second half and North Carolina gradually pulled away.
The Terrapins (17-15), who trailed 36-26 at halftime, cut the Tar 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, and Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock finished with 15 points apiece to lead North Carolina.
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 praised his recently discovered confidence.
"He knows what to do now," Henson said of McAdoo. "He knows what spots he's comfortable in. He knows where he can hit the shots, and he's attacking. And that's what you want."
Without Henson, and with Zeller limited by foul trouble, North Carolina 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.
North Carolina's bench accounted for 25 points, the most it has scored against an ACC opponent this season. Afterward, Williams had difficulty articulating what changed in McAdoo but he acknowledged the obvious - that McAdoo appears to be a calmer, more poised player.
"I can't 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 you're pretty good, because you're not playing very well and I keep putting you in. So why don't you go ahead and play well?' "
McAdoo rewarded Williams' patience Friday. McAdoo recalled a conversation he shared about three weeks ago with North Carolina assistant coach Steve Robinson, who helped inspire McAdoo to change his practice habits and become more focused.
After the media crowd around him thinned out Friday, McAdoo said he felt at last that he belonged. Along the way, he 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 it's all good."