Tokoto’s time to step up for Tar Heels
P.J. Hairston likely will miss today’s game with a concussion, so North Carolina will need a wing player to take on a bigger role when the Tar Heels host Virginia Tech at the Smith Center (noon, WRAL).
After a slow start to conference play, freshman J.P. Tokoto said he’s up for the challenge.
“You can only say ‘I’m a freshman,’ ‘freshman mistake’ so many times,” Tokoto said. “It’s about time to mature and step out there and play with your heart.”
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Hairston scored 48 points in 46 minutes over the past three games for the Tar Heels (14-6, 4-3 ACC) before colliding with Dexter Strickland late in the first half of Tuesday’s win at Boston College. In the locker room at halftime, UNC coach Roy Williams challenged Tokoto to contribute more.
“You could say I was asleep out there first half,” Tokoto said. “(Williams) needed me to just wake up. I had to step up and get it in my mind that I had to ‘D’ up and give the team whatever it needed.”
Williams later said that he was pleased with how Tokoto responded to the pressure.
After averaging nine minutes and scoring just seven total points in his first four conference games, Tokoto is averaging 16 minutes and has scored 21 points in his past three games, starting with eight points, four rebounds and two assists at home against Georgia Tech.
“ I think (that) game was where I showed myself what I really can do — hitting the jump shot, crashing the boards, handling the ball more,” Tokoto said. “I got more comfortable out there, and I just have that confidence now that I can play with the best of them.”
Tokoto has made 25 of his last 40 shots and has multiple assists in each of his last five games. Even before Hairston’s injury, Williams also used Tokoto on the defensive end in crunch time.
The freshman’s biggest issues remain outside shooting and turnovers. Tokoto said he works with assistant coach Hubert Davis on shooting almost every day, and he said changing his mindset will help cut down on the turnovers.
“In high school, you need to create something for your teammates and yourself in order to win,” said Tokoto, who played point guard as a senior. “That’s really where the turnovers came from, the carelessness and the need to feel like I need to do something out there. You’re playing with the best now, ... so sometimes you don’t even need to create.”
Tokoto had been able to settle in behind Hairston and Leslie McDonald on the bench. With Hairston doubtful and McDonald coming back from a six-game absence, Tokoto is looking forward to seeing his role increase.
“I’m going to have to step up my game,” Tokoto said. “I just had to get that mindset that I need to contribute.”
Senior guard Erick Green of Virginia Tech (11-9, 2-5) leads the country in scoring at 25.5 points a game and has scored at least 20 points in every game but one. His numbers have gone up in conference play — 27.4 points on 50.8 percent shooting, including 16 of 32 from behind the arc.
Williams joked that he would employ a box-and-1 defense — four players on Green and one to guard the lane.
“To be leading the nation in scoring and shooting over 50 percent as a guard is off the charts,” Williams said.
If Green continues his pace — he currently is 1.6 points a game ahead of Creighton’s Doug McDermott — he would be the first ACC player since South Carolina’s Grady Wallace (1955-’56) to lead the nation in scoring.
Duke’s J.J. Redick, who scored 26.8 points a game as a senior in 2005-06, was the most recent ACC player to average more than 25 points in an entire season.
McDonald, who missed three games with a knee injury and then three more because of a team suspension, has been practicing fully for the past week and a half and will be available today. ... Hairston has not practiced since suffering the concussion, though he watched Thursday’s session.
“He laughed at some of my jokes during practice, so he’s trying to suck up,” Williams said.