He drove down the lane, drew a foul, made the basket and wound up face-to-face with an excited middle-aged fan on the baseline. James Michael McAdoo, with enthusiasm, obliged with a high-five.
“Just a cool dude sitting in the front row, and I was like, ‘Let’s do this,’ ” the North Carolina forward said after a game where it seemed like he could do just about anything he liked on the court.
That was nothing, though, compared to the reception he received returning to the North Carolina bench after he flew past Ibrahim Djambo for a powerful fast-break slam on the very next possession, forcing a Clemson timeout and delivering the dagger with 16 minutes still to play. The Tar Heels led by 23 at that point and went on to win 80-61 on Sunday.
This wasn’t the night Clemson was finally going to win for the first time in Chapel Hill. Fact is, when McAdoo is playing like this -- attacking the basket with the basketball, fighting down low without it -- not many teams are going to beat North Carolina anywhere, and certainly not one trying to shake off 88 years of history.
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For a full quarter of the game, from late in the first half until early in the second half, McAdoo single-handedly outscored Clemson on his way to cracking the 20-point mark for only the fifth time this season and the first time in ACC play since a home win over Florida State last March 3. He finished with 22 points on 9-of-13 shooting, pulled down seven rebounds and went to the free-throw line 10 times (making only four, a part of his game that hasn’t yet shown improvement).
As the major factor in one of North Carolina’s most active, engaged performances of the season -- precisely what had been missing during the 1-4 start to conference play -- it was hard to tell whether McAdoo was feeding off his teammates’ energy or they were feeding off his.
“I think that James Michael did set the tone, how active he was,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “He was the first one to dive on the floor for a loose ball. He should play like that. I almost don’t feel like I should congratulate him, because that’s the way you should play the game. Our teams have typically done that, but we haven’t done it nearly as much this year.
“So probably it’s a little bit of both. They fed off him, there’s no question, how hard he was working on the boards, but I think also he saw his teammates doing the same thing.”
Also worth noting: McAdoo was part of a collective defensive performance that held Clemson to 34 percent from the field -- a figure inflated by a flurry of garbage-time baskets -- forced 10 turnovers and blocked six shots.
Maybe it’s as simple as Kennedy Meeks playing well, because when the freshman is on his game -- which isn’t always the case -- it relieves McAdoo of some of his inside responsibilities and allows him to be the player NBA scouts speak so highly about, driving to the rim and drawing fouls, pulling up for mid-range jump shots. And dunking. McAdoo dunked a lot Sunday.
“It’s just realizing that I have to mature as a player, and realizing that -- I’m not going to say my performance dictates the outcome of our team’s wins and losses, but I think it’s definitely something that’s huge,” McAdoo.
McAdoo doesn’t always play like this, which has been a persistent cause of frustration during his three years in Chapel Hill. When he does, though, it’s awfully impressive to watch -- and harder to stop.