On Wednesday afternoon, the NCAA reinstated Leslie McDonald after he missed the first nine games due to suspension. By Wednesday night, he looked like the second outside-shooting threat North Carolina had been lacking. If only he could do something about his teammates’ free throw shooting.
While the Jekyll-and-Hyde Tar Heels might need a few extra rounds of freebies in practice after going 24-of-47 from the line in their 86-83 loss to Texas, they have to be encouraged by what McDonald gave them in his first game this season. He played 22 minutes and shot 4 for 9 from behind the arc, equaling the number of threes all of his teammates not named Marcus Paige had made thus far. Three of his triples came in the second half, including two in big spots. Now that it appears North Carolina will be without P.J. Hairston for the entire season, having another perimeter threat to play next to Paige is all the more crucial.
The awful free throw shooting in Chapel Hill must be contagious, as McDonald, who shot 79.5 percent from the line last year, made just 3-of-9 in the loss. If the Heels are going to consistently be the team that beat Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky, they’ll have to figure out their struggles from the stripe.
Heading into Wednesday, North Carolina was shooting 61.1 percent from the line this season, a percentage that fell after the loss to Texas. James Michael McAdoo was the worst offender, missing 10 of his 15 attempts. It was a factor in both of UNC's previous losses, too, when it made 22-of-48 while losing by three to Belmont and 4-of11 in a four-point loss to UAB. Conversely, the Heels shot 64.5 percent in their three big wins. Unless they can also successfully petition the NCAA to let Paige shoot everyone’s free throws – the sophomore is hitting at a 91.2 percent clip from the line – Roy Williams’ squad could be undone by one of the basics of the game.
For their part, the Longhorns weren’t that much better from anywhere on the floor. They shot 40.3 percent from the field and 20-of-33 from the line, but still managed to pick up their biggest win of the season. They were one of the first teams to hang with North Carolina on the boards, pulling down 51 rebounds compared with the Heels’ 42. They may not have shot that well, but the seven extra attempts earned by virtue of 20 offensive rebounds keyed the victory. Texas jumped out to an early nine-point lead, led by 11 at the break and never trailed in the second half even after Carolina twice tied it late.
Perhaps more importantly in a game like this, freshmen Isaiah Taylor (team-high 16 points) and sophomores Demarcus Holland (15 points) and Javan Felix (12) were completely unfazed by the environment in Chapel Hill when the Tar Heels stormed back in the second half. Felix, in particular, showed impressive poise, breaking two ties with baskets in the final four minutes. If Texas, which must contend with the likes of Kansas, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Baylor in a difficult Big 12, is to pick up enough wins to return to the NCAA tournament it will need that sort of play from its talented trio of guards, both at home and on the road.
The win will certainly pretty up the Longhorns’ resume come March. They have another opportunity to impress on Saturday when they host Michigan State.