CHAPEL HILL — A little more than three minutes into North Carolinas 86-83 loss against Texas on Wednesday night, Roy Williams turned to the Tar Heels bench and pointed to Leslie McDonald. For the first time this season, McDonald stood up, peeled off his pullover and headed to center court.
There was a smattering of applause in the Smith Center then. It turned into a roar when McDonald checked into the game with 16 minutes and 14 seconds to play. The NCAA had ruled McDonald eligible earlier in the day, after he sat out the first nine games amid an investigation into impermissible benefits that he received.
The NCAA determined that McDonald, who finished with 15 points on Wednesday night, must repay $1,783 to a charity of his choice for receiving numerous impermissible extra benefits. They included the use of luxury cars, lodging, the payment of parking tickets and a cell phone.
Overwhelming, McDonald said Wednesday night of his emotions when he learned hed be able to play. Ill tell you one thing I didnt believe it at first. But once I knew it was real I just had this, its kind of hard to change that mentality from knowing that youre going to be on the sideline in a suit and knowing youre going to have your jersey on. You know, youve just got to click it on.
McDonalds NCAA issues are now in the past. P.J. Hairstons though, continue to linger on. Hairston, like McDonald, had missed UNCs first nine games of the season. Hairston missed his 10th on Wednesday night, and sat and watched from the bench wearing a suit and tie his usual attire this season.
Hairstons name was absent from the NCAAs statement, which said McDonalds reinstatement request is the only one the NCAA has received from North Carolina.
That might not bode well for the possibility of Hairstons return. In impermissible benefits cases, its up to schools to declare athletes ineligible and then file a reinstatement request.
UNC, according to the NCAA, discovered McDonalds rule violations Oct.24 about two weeks before opening the season Nov.8. The university submitted a reinstatement request to the NCAA for McDonald on Dec. 11. The NCAA and UNC then worked together to finalize the facts.
Its unclear where Hairstons case might stand and whether UNC already submitted a reinstatement request and was denied, or whether it simply chose not to submit a reinstatement request. Asked if he expected to learn a resolution at the same time about Hairston and McDonald, Roy Williams, the UNC coach, said I have no idea.
I mean, come on, he said. Ive been sitting here since June. When they tell me something, Im going to play the people.
After the defeat against Texas, UNC athletic director Bubba Cunningham released a statement through a school spokesman. In the statement, Cunningham expressed optimism that Hairstons case would be resolved by the end of the week.
The University of North Carolina is working with P.J. and his family to settle a few unresolved issues that remain, Cunningham said in the statement. We expect to have this matter resolved by the end of the week.
If it is resolved, that would bring an end to a long, murky saga that has clearly frustrated Williams, who expressed confidence before the season began that UNC would know Hairstons fate before the season-opener against Oakland on Nov. 8.
Instead, the case has continued to drag on. McDonald returned on Wednesday night, leaving Hairston as the only UNC player wearing a suit. It was bittersweet, McDonald said, returning while Hairston continued to sit, watching and waiting.
Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter