CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Asked about his 26-point, 14-rebound performance during Friday’s 76-59 victory over Gardner-Webb, North Carolina forward James Michael McAdoo said it didn’t feel like a career-best performance, but just a “regular night.”
Maybe because this was the kind of night he always dreamed he’d have on the regular.
A year after starting his college career “running around like a chicken with his head cut off,” as he once described it, the sophomore showed the calm and savvy of a player who plans to lead in more ways than one.
“I felt like night and day," said McAdoo, who also had 2 assists, 4 turnovers, a block and a steal. “I feel like now I know what I’m capable of doing, as opposed to last year, when I was trying to find a loose ball here and there, just trying to fit in. But this year, I feel like I’ve embraced my role. ... I feel like I’m in a key role.”
The key role might be more like it, at least as long as these reconstructing Tar Heels -- who lost four-fifths of last year’s starting lineup to the NBA draft -- are still trying to find the right combinations.
Because for all the talk of No. 11 UNC’s improved outside shooting -- and how coach Roy Williams was going to give his veteran wings more freedom to shoot -- the Tar Heels struggled from long distance. They didn’t hit a 3-pointer until early in the second half (via Reggie Bullock) and finished 1-for-12.
“I think that’s something that’s going to come in time," McAdoo said. “We’ve got guys out there like Reggie, Leslie [McDonald], P.J. [Hairston], some of the best shooters in the country. We’ve just got to work in practice and the fluidity will come in time.”
Good thing for the Tar Heels that McAdoo showed his fluidity early, scoring the first two points of the game (and season) on an inside move. And after Gardner-Webb took a 13-10 lead, McAdoo scored 10 points during a 28-13 run to give UNC a 38-26 advantage into the halftime.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs took advantage of some sloppy UNC stretches in the second half, cutting their deficit to 63-54 on a 3-pointer from Isaiah Ivey with 4:57 left. But McAdoo followed a McDonald jumper with a putback to thwart any comeback hopes.
“It thought he played great," said senior Dexter Strickland (13 points), who started alongside McAdoo, Bullock, freshman point guard Marcus Paige and sophomore Desmond Hubert. “It’s just confidence, it’s experience, knowing what he has to do.”
McAdoo admits he struggled with the latter early last season. He showed flashes of the instincts and athleticism that made him one of the top freshman forward recruits in the country, but all too often he also looked passive and out of sync.
He didn’t put it all together, he said, until he embraced practice in late January -- then had a chance to truly make a difference in March, when he was inserted into the starting lineup for three games because of injury.
He excelled, averaging 10.6 points and 4.8 rebounds over his final seven games. He would have been a first-round draft pick had he chosen to leave school early, but said he wanted to prove himself on the college level before he got to the NBA.
And Friday looked like a good start, although both he and Williams would have liked to have seen him hit more than 10 of his 20 shot attempts.
“Not that I wasn’t a part of the team last year, but now that I’m really out there, starting, playing such a key role -- it’s just a blessing to be able to play for the University of North Carolina," said McAdoo, who was named to the preseason ACC first team. “It’s a dream come true every day. So I just try to go as hard as I can and help my team in any way that I can.”
Will that mean a “regular” 26 and 14 every game?
“I’m down with that," he said, laughing.
Then he turned serious: “As long as we win, as long as we win.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.