CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- There were times, early in Miami forward Julian Gamble's left-knee rehab, when he wondered if he’d ever be able to even hop without pain -- much less battle for back-to-back offensive rebounds and score on a putback to jump-start a game-winning run at North Carolina.
Breaking the Tar Heels’ 10-game winning streak over the Hurricanes?
Starting 2-0 in the ACC for the first time since his team joined the league?
Winning at the Smith Center, just a short drive from his Durham, N.C., hometown, 68-59?
Yes, Gamble said Thursday night, returning for a sixth year was certainly worth it.
“Of course this is what you hope for,” Gamble said after notching 14 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks en route to pushing UNC to 0-2 in the ACC. “But not just for me -- for my team.”
Indeed, the victory marked the road-tested Hurricanes' third consecutive victory -- perhaps extra impressive, considering all have been without center(piece) Reggie Johnson.
When the 6-foot-10, 292-pound center fractured his thumb last month before the Hurricanes' trip to the Diamond Head Classic, there was worry about how the guard-heavy team would adapt without his defensive presence in the lane and double-double (12.6 points, 10.1 rebounds) average per game.
Going 1-2 in the Diamond Head Classic didn’t exactly help curb that concern.
But Gamble’s play of late just might.
In wins against La Salle and at Georgia Tech, he averaged 6.5 points and 7.5 rebounds.
And making his sixth straight start in place of Johnson on Thursday, the 6-10, 250-pounder was even more aggressive from the outset. With Miami trailing 32-30 at the break, the team went to him early and often in the second half, wanting to establish an offensive presence in the lane to help open things up for its outside shooters. And he delivered, scoring six of Miami’s first seven points to make it 37-all.
“I feel like we’re a bigger, stronger, more physical, more experienced team than them [the Tar Heels] at this point, so we just had to take advantage of it,” said Gamble, who got plenty of advice and words of encouragement from Johnson on the bench.
His biggest advantage-taking moment came with 4 minutes, 31 seconds left.
After UNC reserve P.J. Hairston buried a 3-pointer to cut Miami’s lead to 56-55, Gamble grabbed teammate Durand Scott's missed 3-pointer. Playing with four fouls but backing off not one bit, he missed the putback, but grabbed another rebound in traffic and made that one to put his team up by three points -- and jump-start an 8-0 run.
“I was just thinking ‘Be relentless, outwork them,’” Gamble said. “That’s what one of our coaches always tells us: No matter what happens, no matter what adversity happens, just keep working.”
It was that mentality, too, Gamble said, that helped get him through the frustrations of rehabilitation after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee during a workout in August 2011. There were days, he remembered, when medication barely numbed the pain. He didn’t know until February whether the NCAA would allow him to play for a rare sixth year (he redshirted his freshman season, in 2007-08). And he actually had to undergo a second knee surgery, he said, when a lesion was found on the back of his ACL graft.
“It was another blow to my mindset, and my confidence: Was I ever going to play like I could before?” he said.
But he is.
Maybe, at times, even better.
“Reggie Johnson is a tremendous inside presence, he’s a low-post player, back to the basket, and he helps us a lot of different ways,” Miami coach Jim Larranaga said. “But Julian has done an admirable job, stepping up and defending, rebounding and scoring. Tonight, he had double figures, 7-for-10 from the field, 14 points and 6 rebounds. That’s an outstanding performance, especially in a game like this where every possession counts.”
Senior Kenny Kadji led the Canes with 18 points and 9 rebounds Thursday. James Michael McAdoo led UNC with 14 points and 6 rebounds, although Miami held the Tar Heels to just one field goal (that Hairston 3-pointer) during a crucial 7-minute span in the second half.
“[This win] gives us great confidence, but at the same time, we know we have 16 more games left,” Gamble said. “It’s the beginning of the conference season, and we don’t have a lot of time to dwell on this victory.”
Although after all that rehab, Gamble -- who had more than a dozen friends and family members in the crowd -- admits he does appreciate each "W" a bit more.
“To be playing basketball at the highest level, and to be playing at places like Duke and Carolina, and just having the opportunity to play in front of family and friends, it’s just a great feeling,” he said.