UNC finds balance and unlikely scoring in recent victories

acarter@newsobserver.comFebruary 21, 2014 

North Carolina freshman forward Kennedy Meeks has played a significant role in the Tar Heels’ seven-game winning streak.

ROBERT WILLETT -- RWILLETT@NEWSOBSERVER.COM

  • UNC vs. Wake Forest

    When/where: Noon, Smith Center, Chapel Hill

    TV/Radio: ACC Network/106.1-WRDU

    Projected starting lineups

    UNC (19-7, 9-4 ACC)

    G Marcus Paige 17 ppg, 4.6 apg

    G Leslie McDonald 10.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg

    F J.P. Tokoto 9 ppg, 5.7 rpg

    F James Michael McAdoo 14.5 ppg, 7.1 rpg

    F Kennedy Meeks 7.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg

    Wake Forest (14-12, 4-9)

    G Madison Jones 3.8 ppg, 3.4 apg

    G Codi Miller-McIntyre 14.1 ppg, 4 apg

    F Travis McKie 11.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg

    F A.W. Adala Moto 6.5 ppg, 5.5 rpg

    F Devin Thomas 11 ppg, 8 rpg

    Player to watch

    Leslie McDonald, guard, North Carolina

    McDonald is coming off his best game of the season, and one of the best of his collegiate career. He scored 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting on Thursday night in the Tar Heels’ victory against Duke. The question now is whether McDonald can back up one strong performance with another one. Consistency has been an issue for him throughout his time at UNC, and he had been mired in a prolonged shooting slump before the Duke game.

    Observations

    This is the Tar Heels’ first ACC rematch of the season. UNC opened conference play at Wake Forest and lost primarily because of its failure to capitalize on second-chance points. … The Tar Heels’ eight-game winning streak is their longest since they won nine games in a row during the 2011-12 season. … UNC will be wearing early-1980s-inspired throwback jerseys. … UNC at halftime on Saturday will honor Charles Scott, the former basketball player who was the school’s first black scholarship athlete. Scott is one of four former athletes who will be recognized as part of the newly-created Tar Heels Trailblazers program.

    Andrew Carter

— Even while North Carolina began to recover from its 1-4 start in the ACC, coach Roy Williams worried what might happen if the Tar Heels’ two best players went cold. The thought might still concern him, though at least now UNC has proven it can win otherwise.

Williams has often made a point this season to talk about urgency, and the Tar Heels’ need to play with more of it. After that, though, his second-most popular point might be his desire for better balance – and for the Tar Heels not to rely solely on junior forward James Michael McAdoo and sophomore guard Marcus Paige to provide points.

Finally, just when teams need to be at their best, UNC appears to be becoming the kind of balanced team Williams might appreciate. The Tar Heels won their past two games – at Florida State on Monday night, and at home against Duke on Thursday night – thanks in large part because role players asserted themselves.

Kennedy Meeks, the freshman forward, scored a career-high 23 during the victory at Florida State. That helped UNC overcome McAdoo’s least productive game of the season – no points and five fouls in 13 minutes.

Then, against the fifth-ranked Blue Devils, Leslie McDonald scored 21 points – two fewer than Paige and McAdoo combined to score – and he made nine of 12 shots, a performance that suggested his miserable shooting slump might be over. McDonald entered Thursday night having made just two of his previous 16 shots.

That the Tar Heels won those games is enough to please Williams and his team. But that they won them without a pair of dominant performances from their two best players is an indication of the increased balance at UNC, which plays against Wake Forest on Saturday at the Smith Center.

“Me and Leslie have really just been trying to get in each other’s ear,” McAdoo said after the victory against Duke on Thursday night. “He’s definitely been helping me and my mindset coming into the game – attack, attack, attack. So I knew he was going to break out of this shooting slump … it was just a matter of time.”

During the first five games of UNC’s eight-game winning streak, McAdoo was his team’s best player. He averaged more than 18 points and eight rebounds per game during that stretch.

Then came the scoreless game against the Seminoles. Against Duke, he excelled defensively but struggled offensively again, and finished with 10 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Paige, meanwhile, went scoreless in the first half on Thursday night before his strong second half. He has made a habit of following quiet first halves with dominant second halves, and he finished with 13 points against Duke.

Amid Paige’s first-half struggles, and McAdoo’s difficulties on offense, McDonald had an opportunity. He took advantage of it.

“He was really the one getting us going in the first half,” Paige said of McDonald. “I was awful in the first half. I had a bunch of turnovers, didn’t play great defensively. … But Leslie was our guy tonight.”

UNC players have scored at least 20 points 19 times this season. Paige and McAdoo have combined for 14 of those.

UNC’s victories against Florida State and Duke represented the first time this season that the Tar Heels received 20-point performances in consecutive games from two players besides Paige and McAdoo. While those two have often carried the Tar Heels, Williams had been waiting for other players to emerge as consistent scoring options.

The past two games suggest his wait might be over.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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