CHAPEL HILL — For one night, at least, North Carolina didn’t miss P.J. Hairston and Leslie McDonald, two players who began the season wearing suits, their fate in the hands of the NCAA.
Hairston and McDonald didn’t play on Friday night during the Tar Heels’ 84-61 victory against Oakland at the Smith Center, but they were active nonetheless in their capacity as unofficial cheerleaders. The 3-pointers that Marcus Paige made throughout the first half brought them out of their seats, as did the alley-oops that J.P. Tokoto threw from behind the 3-point line.
Roy Williams, in his 11th season as the Tar Heels coach, said on Friday that this had been the most difficult preseason of his career, trying to sort through a mess that Hairston and McDonald created. And the most difficult preseason, Williams said, followed his most difficult off-season, when Hairston at times seemed to find trouble wherever he went.
For weeks, Williams had been trying to figure his best starting lineup and his best rotation. He pondered the question of starting two point guards, which UNC (1-0) did on Friday night. He thought about how best to utilize odd-fitting pieces of a difficult-to-solve puzzle.
Then, at last, came Friday, the season-opener, and after all the questions and uncertainty, the Tar Heels didn’t miss their missing pieces in the least. Not with Paige, a sophomore point guard who made his first career start at shooting guard, tying his career high with four 3-pointers in the first half. Not with Tokoto, who’d never scored more than 10 points at UNC, scoring all 13 of his points during the first half.
“I needed it a lot, myself,” Williams said of this reassuring performance. “But I think the kids were invested.”
Early on, especially. James Michael McAdoo, the junior forward who returned for the second consecutive season after considering entering the NBA draft, played with a purpose, too.
He scored the Tar Heels’ first seven points, two of which came on a running shot in the lane seven seconds into the game. Fouled in the act, he made the free-throw for a three-point play. McAdoo acknowledged afterward that the Tar Heels “were really kind of unsure of what things were going to be like” without Hairston and McDonald.
As it turned out, things weren’t that bad. It helped, too, that McAdoo played without the back pain that followed him throughout last season.
“(With) my back not bothering me, or anything else – no ailments – I just felt good and excited,” said McAdoo, who finished with 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting, which was his statistic that most pleased Williams.
The Golden Grizzlies (0-1), picked to finish fourth in the Horizon League, never challenged. The Tar Heels forced nine first-half turnovers and defended Oakland well. The Grizzlies missed 23 of their 29 shots in the first half, and UNC rebounded all but four of those misses.
On the other end, Nate Britt, the freshman who started at point guard, pushed the tempo. Paige excelled shooting on the wing, where Hairston or McDonald would have been had they played. And Tokoto looked like a different player in his second season.
The decisive stretch began about five minutes into the game. Before a Paige 3, UNC led 12-8. During the next 11 minutes, the Tar Heels outscored the Grizzlies 38-11. Oakland made 20.7 percent of its field goal attempts during the first half (6-for-29), while the Tar Heels shot 74.2 percent.
Amid the dominant start, Tokoto, known for his leaping ability, created highlights with his passing. He threw a pair of alley-oops – one to McAdoo, and another to Brice Johnson – that earned two of the loudest ovations of the game.
In addition to McAdoo’s 21 points, four other UNC player scored in double figures, including freshman forward Kennedy Meeks and sophomore forward Brice Johnson, both of whom had 10 points. Paige, who has been working to adopt more of a scorer’s mentality given the suspensions of Hairston and McDonald, finished with 14 points and made four of his seven 3-point attempts.
“Someone’s got to knock down shots,” Paige said. “You’ve got to be able to score from the outside. So I’m accepting that responsibility, especially now without our two best shooters.”
Far more difficult tests await UNC than the Grizzlies, who in the second half never cut UNC’s lead to less than the 23-point final margin. UNC later this month will likely play against Louisville in Connecticut, and then there’s an early-December game at Michigan State. Both opponents have started the season ranked among the top five teams in the nation.
For one night, at least, amid all the uncertainty that followed them into the season, the Tar Heels didn’t appear all that uncertain at all. With two of their best, most experienced players watching, they put on a show – especially in the first half.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter