North Carolina point guard Coby White wondered what was wrong with his shot. His shot didn’t have the same arc it had when he dropped 33 points against Miami earlier this month.
So he texted his high school coach, Rob Salter, who told him exactly what he had been thinking.
He had been “too straight up with his shot.”
White was having one of the worst stretches of his young college career. He had averaged 11.5 points per game, was shooting 30 percent from the floor and 22 percent from 3 over his last four games.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
But on Tuesday, he found his stroke again. He finished shooting 9 of 14 from the floor, 6 of 11 from 3 and scored a career-high 34 points to help No. 5 UNC defeat Syracuse 93-85 at the Dean Smith Center. The Tar Heels have won 11 of their last 12 games and have clinched a double-bye in the ACC tournament.
UNC (23-5, 13-2 ACC) needed every bit of White’s firepower on Tuesday. White, graduate senior Cam Johnson, who had 16 points, and freshman Nassir Little, who had 11 points, were the only Tar Heel players to score in double figures. And Syracuse (18-10, 9-6) had come out firing.
The Orange shot 53 percent from the floor in the first half and led the Tar Heels 46-43. That prompted UNC coach Roy Williams to question his team’s toughness.
White and his teammates heard the message loud and clear. The Orange’s 49-46 lead with 18:43 left was their last.
White knocked down a 3-pointer on the Tar Heels’ next possession to tie the game. He scored a layup, while being fouled a few possessions later. The Tar Heels started the half on a 15-3 run, giving them a nine-point lead with about 15 minutes remaining.
The nine-point lead did not last long, though. Syracuse sophomore guard Tyus Battle got hot, scoring 23 of his 29 points in the second half. But White and the Tar Heels were just a little better.
White made six of his last eight shots to help UNC overcome what was initially an eight-point deficit late in the first half. One of the final six shots he made bounced high off the rim and fell through the net.
“Coby made some big baskets for us to say the least,” coach Williams said.
White attacked Syracuse’s zone in a variety of ways and was rewarded for it. He got to the free throw line 10 times and made all 10. It was the most free throws he has made or attempted in a game.
“He found some gaps in (the zone) and was able to exploit it and got some layups,” said UNC senior guard Kenny Williams, who had eight points, six rebounds and five assists. “But that boy shoots. He can shoot the ball.”
White, at 6-5, 185 pounds, is averaging 15.9 points per game this season, which is second only to Johnson, who averages 16.7 points per game. White’s 34 points on Tuesday night was the third time this season he has scored 30 points or more, a first for a UNC freshman. He scored 33 in a 92-89 loss to Texas on Nov. 22, and 33 in a 88-85 overtime victory over Miami on Feb. 9.
Earlier this month, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called White one of the best players in the entire country and marveled at his speed.
“He’s the real deal,” Krzyzewski said.
White now owns the third-most, fourth-most, and fifth-most points scored by a UNC freshman in a game. Both Tyler Hansbrough and Harrison Barnes scored 40 points as freshmen.
“I’ve said it before, he’s the best scoring point guard that I have coached,” coach Williams said. “Ty Lawson got to that stage later when he could score. Coby is a scorer and I have never minded a scoring point guard.”
But White, who broke the North Carolina high school scoring record at Greenfield School, had struggled after his 33-point game against Miami earlier this month.
He was 6 of 19 from the floor in UNC’s 69-61 loss to Virginia on Feb. 11. He was 4 of 10 from the floor in UNC’s 95-57 win over Wake Forest on Feb. 16. He was 3 of 14 in the 88-72 win over Duke on Feb. 20. And he was 4 of 13 in UNC’s 77-59 win over Florida State on Feb. 23.
White had become discouraged. He talked to his mother, brother and sister, who all told him to stay positive.
And he went back to the gym and focused on getting lower in his shooting motion to get more arc on his shot.
When asked to describe his gym routine, White said it was a secret.
“Someone might try to steal it!” he quipped.
Whatever it was, it did the trick.