UNC's McDonald, Meeks hobbling on N.C. State eve
Although a stretch of four games in eight days didn’t seem to affect North Carolina at the time, its impact may yet be felt.
Last week the Tar Heels defeated No. 5 Duke and No. 25 Pittsburgh at home, won at Florida State and capped the grueling stretch with a 33-point beatdown over Wake Forest on Saturday.
But starters Leslie McDonald and Kennedy Meeks both suffered foot injuries over the weekend and may not be at full strength today when No. 19 UNC (20-7, 10-4 ACC) visits N.C. State at PNC Arena (8:06 p.m., WRAL) The Tar Heels’ current nine-game winning streak coincides with McDonald and Meeks both starting at the same time. McDonald had a game-high 20 points and Meeks had 10 rebounds in UNC’s 84-70 win over the Wolfpack (17-10, 7-7) at the Smith Center on Feb. 1.
McDonald said his left ankle started hurting on Sunday. The senior guard was limping during practice on Monday and felt more soreness Tuesday.
“I’m not really sure what happened,” McDonald said before practice Tuesday. “It wasn’t anything that happened in the game or anything. I mean, you know, our bodies have been under stress, so it’s probably a little tweak.”
Meeks’ injury was much more obvious. The freshman center hyperextended his knee and sprained his ankle in the first half against Wake Forest, though he came back in three more times during the course of the game.
“I guess I was trying to be tough,” Meeks said. “I guess that didn’t help after the game, just made it a little worse, but I’ll be alright.”
Meeks spent Monday in the pool while his teammates were on the court. Still, both McDonald and Meeks practiced Tuesday and felt certain that they would play against the Wolfpack as UNC seeks its first 10-game winning streak in five seasons. Without them, the Tar Heels would have just five players who averaged more than six minutes during the streak.
McDonald has led the team in scoring in each of the past two games, posting a combined 40 points on 14 of 21 shooting after scoring 10 points on 2 of 16 shooting in the previous two games. The senior said that the difference comes down to confidence and patience.
“You can just tell within the film (when I’m) searching for my shots and forcing my shot and it’s been off,” McDonald said. “But if I play within the team and not so much look for my shot but take the open shots, I’ve been able to knock those shots down.”
McDonald’s recent surge has taken some of the pressure off of top scorers Marcus Paige and James Michael McAdoo. Paige won ACC player of the week honors last week after averaging 15.3 points and 5.0 assists — he is the only conference player in the top six in both categories — and the sophomore is 18 of 35 from behind the arc in the last six games.
Paige’s play has helped lift the Tar Heels back into the AP poll after a seven-week absence.
“I think North Carolina is playing as well as anybody in America,” N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried said. “When I watch them now they are so much different than they were earlier in the year. Their confidence level is high.”
The Tar Heels have won 15 of their last 16 games against the Wolfpack, though that loss came last season at PNC Arena, when N.C. State led by 28 in the second half before holding on for a 91-83 win.
Getting a win in Raleigh this year will likely depend on stopping versatile Durham native T.J. Warren, who leads the ACC in points per game (23.3) and field-goal percentage (52.3).
“He shoots a great percentage — to me that’s the biggest key,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “A guy can average a lot but if you hold his percentage down you’re still okay. But everybody’s tried to hold his percentage down and nobody’s done it.”
Warren scored 21 points on 9 of 16 shooting in the first meeting this season. While a defensive effort led by J.P. Tokoto contained Warren in half-court sets, six of his field goals were off of offensive rebounds or came in transition.
The Tar Heels need to win two of their last four games to finish in the top four in the conference and get a coveted double-bye in the ACC Tournament. That seems realistic considering the schedule still includes games against Virginia Tech and Notre Dame, but the team’s health will be a factor.
“You could ask any player… just playing those type of games within that stretch is a toll on the body,” McDonald said. “But at the same time it’s not an excuse. We still have to fight.”