Calmer waters? Tar Heels take deep breath, regroup
After one of the most up-and-down weeks in the recent history of North Carolina basketball, the Tar Heels are hoping its final week of non-conference play is far more uneventful.
No. 19 UNC (8-3) plays 4-7 Northern Kentucky Friday at the Smith Center (7 p.m. ESPNU) and then hosts UNC Wilmington (6-7) on New Year’s Eve before opening its ACC slate at Wake Forest on Jan. 5.
Though not much has gone to plan this season, home games against Northern Kentucky and UNCW should give UNC a respite after a seven-day roller coaster that was equal parts exhilarating and demoralizing.
On Dec. 14, the Tar Heels knocked off preseason-No. 1 Kentucky and soon found out that Leslie McDonald would be eligible to play after their only scholarship senior missed the first nine games for accepting impermissible benefits.
But the mood would turn sour later in the week. UNC lost to Texas on Dec. 18 with an effort that was so poor that coach Roy Williams scheduled a 5 a.m. practice some eight hours later. Then on Dec. 20, the team announced that P.J. Hairston, last year’s leading scorer, had committed penalties that were so egregious that the school wouldn’t even ask to have his eligibility restored by the NCAA.
Finally, the week ended on Dec. 21 when 4-8 Davidson pushed UNC to overtime at the Smith Center before the Tar Heels could finally pull away.
“There was a lot of highs and lows during the week,” sophomore Marcus Paige said after the Davidson game. “Beating Kentucky and the white-out crowd, that was sensational for us as a team. Then coming and getting smacked around by Texas, and it was great to get Leslie back and it really hurt our team to hear about P.J.
“It’s about as much drama as you can get in one week as a team — as a young team — but I think we handled it well and we just had to get through this game and get to (the) break so we can rejuvenate and come back ready to go.”
The Tar Heels headed to their respective homes after Saturday’s game and were scheduled to reconvene for practice Thursday night.
Perhaps no one needed the rest more than Paige, who leads the ACC in minutes played (36.1). The 175-pound sophomore, who is fourth in the conference in points per game (19.4), didn’t score in the first 31 minutes against Davidson before putting in 11 of his 17 points in overtime.
“I was just exhausted,” Paige said. “It was kind of a long week. We had a couple tough practices. We had a physical game against Texas. It took me awhile to get into the game. I didn’t feel like myself for 30 minutes. It was tough.”
Paige also faced a box-and-1 defense bent on stopping him, which at times became a triangle-and-2 when shooter Leslie McDonald was also on the floor.
Still, those defenses provided opportunities for players like sophomore wing J.P. Tokoto, who had a career-high 22 points on 8 of 14 shooting against Davidson, and freshman center Kennedy Meeks, who made all six of his shots and scored 13 points.
“When teams go box-and-1, triangle-and-2… that opens up the floor for everybody else,” Tokoto said. “We have a 1-on-1 matchup inside or the ball’s on the wing and there’s a whole lane. That’s kind of why I was hot tonight, I got to the rim and got open shots.”
UNC is expected to generate some more positive momentum tonight. Northern Kentucky was picked to finish ninth in the 10-team Atlantic Sun Conference by the coaches. The Norse have won three straight games — over Chattanooga, Hampton and Navy — but are still rated 304th out of 351 teams by Ken Pomeroy.