The old man delivered
Posted February 21
Thursday night was a heavyweight fight in Chapel Hill. It wasn't always a pretty one, at times resembling a lot more Norton vs Frazier than Ali vs Foreman (you kids can go Google those), but North Carolina and Duke went at each other -- with gusto -- for 40 minutes before the Tar Heels finally came off the ropes for a 74-66 win.
In games like this it's rare that the stars ultimately decide the outcome. Sure, they have to do their part and Duke's Jabari Parker and UNC's Marcus Paige mostly performed the way you'd expect in the face of so much defensive attention. In games like Thursday's, it's usually one of the support players that fills in the gaps, providing a needed spark and confidence that his team needs.
Leslie McDonald, ladies and gentlemen. Leslie McDonald.
Coming off two of his worst outings of the season, games in which the Tar Heels were able to survive with almost nothing positive from him, the fifth year senior turned in arguably the best performance of his Carolina career with a season high 21 points on 9 of 12 shooting from the field. On top of that, it came in a game in which his team had almost no chance to win unless he was the difference.
Marcus Paige is North Carolina's best player. Without him, they have no chance of success. Paige dragged the Tar Heels to a win in Tallahassee on Monday in spite of James Michael McAdoo scoring as many points in Leon County as I did. Tonight, because Duke isn't coached by a rutabaga, the Blue Devils weren't going to allow Paige to breathe. The Devils were going to choke off every opportunity for the sophomore floor general and force someone else on the perimeter to do the damage. And, coming off back-to-back stinkers, it was hard to feel confidently about McDonald's ability to answer the bell.
Fearless. That's one way to describe the way the senior from Memphis played in victory. He showed tremendous leadership, played with great poise and otherwise gave Roy Williams what his team needed the most -- an experienced player to take the pressure off the rest of his team.
If you think about it, other than Paige doing what Paige does in the second half, where he scored all 13 of his points -- including nine and an assist in the last 5 1/2 minutes -- there wasn't a whole lot to be proud of offensively in Carolina's night. McAdoo was ordinary. So was JP Tokoto. And the young tandem of Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson combined for nine points, or 28 fewer than they provided against the Seminoles. What they did do, however, was hit the boards. Their 29 combined rebounds -- 11 offensive -- contributed to a spectacular defensive effort that held the Blue Devils down until someone could rescue them offensively.
McDonald was that someone.
This has been a difficult year for Leslie. He lost the first nine games to NCAA suspension -- no complaints, it was his own fault -- and when he came back he played as though he was trying to make up for it -- and the entire season he'd lost to a knee injury -- with every possession. McDonald was playing, it seemed, with the weight of lost time on his shoulders.
As North Carolina was dropping four of their first five games in ACC play McDonald was more a contributor to the early-season demise as opposed to a shot in the arm upon his return. It wasn't so much that his scoring was low (7.8 ppg on 31% shooting) or that he wasn't defending very well, it was more like he was trying to prove to the world how good he used to be. Sort of like the guy at the park who told all those stories about "when I was on the yard", but just couldn't deliver. Let's be honest, it's been a long time since Leslie McDonald played a ballgame like he did against Duke Thursday night. However, on a night when his team had to have his best just to have a chance, he did what veterans are supposed to do.
Leslie McDonald helped rescue his team from a third straight home loss to their arch rivals. And, the best part is that he didn't seem to do anything other than his job. When North Carolina climbs back into the rankings for the first time in 2014, the team can walk over, pat the old man on the back and thank McDonald for the help. Without him, Thursday night had no chance of happening.