CHAPEL HILL — Underneath the glare of cameras and seated comfortably in the public spotlight on Friday night, James Michael McAdoo, the North Carolina sophomore forward, thought back to a year ago. Then he was a timid freshman, uncertain of his abilities and his role on a team with no shortage of star power.
And now he had just led the No. 11 Tar Heels to a 76-59 season-opening victory against Gardner-Webb.
I feel like its night and day, McAdoo, who scored 26 points on Friday night, said of then and now. I feel like now I know what Im capable of doing, as opposed to last year [when] I was just going out there, just trying to find a loose ball here and there just trying to fit in.
After emerging as an important contributor last March in the ACC and NCAA tournaments, great expectations surrounded McAdoo entering his second season. For one game, at least, he met those, and was on Friday night the steadying force that coach Roy Williams hoped McAdoo could be.
The Tar Heels (1-0) werent always sharp against Gardner-Webb. Far from it. UNC struggled to find an offensive rhythm against the Bulldogs zone defense, and the Heels made the kind of mistakes Williams might have expected from a team that is adapting to the loss of four starters who were all selected among the top 17 picks in the NBA draft.
But there were plenty of positives, too, and McAdoos production might have been the brightest of all even if Williams wished those 26 points came on fewer attempts from the field. Williams after the game scanned the stat sheet in front of him.
James Michael 26 [points] and 14 [rebounds], Williams said. Those are pretty big-time numbers. Id like him to do it without having to take 20 shots.
Both of those totals points and rebounds represented career-highs for McAdoo, who was one of many Tar Heels who played their first game in new roles on Friday night. Among those was Marcus Paige, the freshman point guard who started his collegiate game and finished with 6 points but no assists and four turnovers in 28 minutes.
Even without an assist, Paige played an active role in UNCs offense. He attempted nine shots.
Paige, who said he was a little disappointed in his play, admitted he endured jitters before tip-off. He led the Tar Heels out of the locker room and onto the court, and took time to register the moment.
It wasnt even a packed house tonight, Paige said. But when you see all those fans out there, you start to get a little nervous.
Many in the Smith Center crowd might have been nervous, too, while Gardner-Webb (0-1) continued to remain in the game during the first half. Six minutes in, the Bulldogs held a 13-10 lead. UNC led 22-19 with about nine minutes to play in the first half before the Heels ended the half on a 16-7 run that gave them a 38-26 halftime lead.
During that surge, UNC benefitted from strong defense. It held the Bulldogs to 34.5 percent shooting in the first half 40 percent for the game and forced 22 turnovers overall.
Im disappointed in how we played but Im not disappointed in my team, said Williams, who was hopeful that his teams experience against a zone defense would prove to be beneficial. I think it was a good night for us, and I think we learned a lot.
UNC built a 16-point lead early in the second half and led by 18 with about 10 minutes to play. But Gardner-Webb, which lost by three points against UNC at the start of the 2005-06 season, didnt go away. The Bulldogs cut their deficit to nine with about five minutes left, before the Heels went on an 8-0 run to put the game away.
Dexter Strickland, returning from the season-ending knee injury he suffered in January, finished with 13 points. The four freshmen Paige, Joel James, Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto all added 6 points apiece.
All four of those players had envisioned what their first collegiate games might be like. Had the reality matched the imagination?
Honestly, no, James said, smiling. I imagined me dropping 35 points, grabbing 20 rebounds.
But this, he said, Was pretty good. It was that for the four freshmen, for McAdoo and for the Tar Heels, who began their first game of a new era both with a victory and with the belief that theres plenty of room to grow.