CHAPEL HILL — Before Thursday night, people might have remembered Leslie McDonald’s senior season at North Carolina for what happened off the court rather than on it. They might have recalled rental cars and an impermissible benefits case and a tumultuous time that dragged on through November and December.
There were times when McDonald, in his fifth season, wondered if he would play basketball again. He laughed at the people who made fun of him on Twitter, and he spent the first part of the season wearing a suit and tie, hoping for a chance.
McDonald, though, said he never envisioned something like this – a team-high 21 points during the Tar Heels’ 74-66 victory against No. 5 Duke at the Smith Center on Thursday. While he spent time regretting mistakes and waiting for another chance, he never allowed his mind to drift too far ahead.
Even Thursday, he said he didn’t daydream of ending his miserable shooting slump just when the Tar Heels most needed him. McDonald entered the Smith Center having made just two of his past 16 attempts from the field.
He walked off of the court, amid a throng of delirious students, after one of his best games at UNC. Without question, it had been his most memorable night.
“Honestly,” McDonald said, “if you have told me earlier today I would have scored 21 points, I would been laughing.”
McDonald sat out the first nine games this season, suspended because of his involvement in an impermissible benefits scandal that cost his former teammate, P.J. Hairston, his collegiate eligibility. Amid the early-season drama, coach Roy Williams said McDonald’s leadership role had been stripped away, and when the NCAA cleared McDonald to return during mid-December, he didn’t enter the starting lineup.
His ascension into the starting five came later, after UNC lost its first three ACC games. The hope then was that McDonald, one of the team’s only capable outside shooters, would provide the kind of perimeter offense the Tar Heels had been lacking.
It didn’t work out that way. McDonald labored through one shooting slump before scoring 20 points in a victory against N.C. State late last month. Then his shooting touch abandoned him again.
“He’s been through a lot,” UNC sophomore guard Marcus Paige said of McDonald, who made nine of his 12 shots from the field against Duke. “Off the court. On the court. With injuries. With other stuff that he had to deal with.
“Tough season this year. Finally started getting back in the groove. And he’s a great teammate because every night, if he shoots 1-for-10 or makes every shot he takes and scores well, he’s invested in what we’re doing as a team.”
UNC needed McDonald more than usual on Thursday. Paige went scoreless in the first half before finishing with 13 points. James Michael McAdoo scored 10 points and missed nine of his 14 shots from the field.
McDonald led the Tar Heels early and allowed them to keep pace with the Blue Devils, who built an early six-point lead behind a quick start from Rodney Hood. Then, later, McDonald came through while the Tar Heels attempted to come back, and then pulled away in the final seconds.
Six of his points came during the final 4 minutes, 40 seconds. He made a pair of free throws to cut Duke’s lead to two, and then he gave UNC a 62-60 lead with a little less than four minutes to play. McDonald wasn’t a public leader of the team – McAdoo and Paige fill those roles – but he became one Thursday night.
“He was just leading in the way he was playing,” McAdoo said. “And we needed that today. Without him, we probably wouldn’t have won.”
After the Tar Heels made their way off a crowded court, they danced – as they like to do after significant victories – in the locker room. McAdoo described the locker room scene as “just wild,” though he said he was too tired to participate.
McDonald did, though. Two years ago, he missed his junior season after tearing his ACL in the summer of 2011, and then there was the self-inflicted mess that cost him the first nine games of this season.
McDonald never imagined a night like this, never envisioned leading his team to a victory against a top-five Duke team at home. The thought would have made him laugh earlier on Thursday, before he provided people with something better to remember him by.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter