Heels, McDonald on upswing
North Carolina had moments of promise and plenty of missteps early in the season before hitting its stride late.
In some respects, that journey mirrors the one traveled by senior guard Leslie McDonald, who will be honored tonight at the Smith Center as UNC plays its final home game of the season against Notre Dame (7 p.m., ESPN).
The Tar Heels had surprising non-conference wins against the top three teams in the preseason AP poll, but suffered equally surprising non-conference losses against unranked teams and started 1-4 in the ACC. Last year’s top scorer, P.J. Hairston, was also kicked off the team for breaking NCAA rules.
But No. 19 UNC (22-7, 12-4 ACC) has won 11 games in a row – its longest regular-season winning streak against conference opponents since 2001 – heading into its first-ever ACC home game against the Fighting Irish (15-15, 6-11).
Similarly, McDonald’s career has been filled with ups and downs. After two years as a role player, he was having a breakthrough summer heading into his junior year before he tore his ACL in a Durham summer league game.
The Memphis native also missed six games during his redshirt junior year because a knee injury and an academic issue, and he was suspended for the first nine games of this season for receiving almost $2,000 in impermissible benefits.
Still, McDonald said that all the time off made him stronger. He’s third on the team in scoring at 11.0 points per game and was instrumental in the team’s emotional win over Duke, scoring a game-high 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting.
McDonald said that he wants fans to remember him as a “hard-nosed fighter” who battled through the setbacks.
“When adversity was dealt to him, he didn’t fall into the depths,” McDonald said. “He came swinging, he came fighting, and he wanted it bad. … The ACL, the NCAA situation, missing games – whatever may come – he was still fighting. He didn’t give up.”
McDonald said that the most trying time was after his ACL tear, though the injury did help him see basketball from a different perspective.
“It’s not given to you. You have to earn it,” McDonald said. “And something we forget within this world, we’re very blessed, and we can’t take that for granted.”
That made the delayed start to his senior year even more frustrating. During a lengthy investigation, McDonald acknowledged driving four luxury rental cars given to him by a Durham party promoter, Haydn “Fats” Thomas, but he said last week that he didn’t realize that he was breaking NCAA rules at the time.
“The NCAA has a big rulebook," McDonald said. "And I don’t see a lot of college players taking the time out to read that because it’s so big, but we just have to be cautious as players, what to do and what not to do, and if you don’t know, ask. If I would have asked, it would have helped me out, but at the same time you can’t change the past. I did my time, and now I’m looking forward.”
McDonald said that his past struggles have made him more determined on the court, much like the team’s slow start in the league has made it stronger for the stretch run.
“I tell people every day, if it wasn’t for those four (ACC losses), I don’t think we would have been this disciplined and this fun to watch now.” McDonald said.
Now, the 23-year-old who teammates call “O.G. (Original Gangster) Les” because of his long tenure at UNC is down to his last home game.
“It’s hard,” McDonald said. “You’re right down at the last lane and you see it coming up. But at the same time, I cherish it. I cherish the memories I’ve had in this gym and the people I’ve played with that have gone to do better things, and it’s just my time to cherish this moment.”