CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- When you have to do as much finger-pointing as the No. 20 Tar Heels did on Saturday night, you can’t really blame some of the players -- particularly the freshman -- for occasionally forgetting the credit-the-assist-man tradition.
“I missed it a few times tonight, in the heat of the moment," rookie wing J.P. Tokoto said, smiling a bit sheepishly after throwing down a couple of replay-worthy dunks and finishing with nine points. “We usually do a great job of that, but sometimes you forget.”
Call it another learning opportunity.
The Tar Heels led by 30 at halftime, after an opening half that saw the Rams set a new Smith Center record for futility by scoring only 12 points.
UNC’s lone unassisted field goal came during that breakaway, when redshirt junior Leslie McDonald missed an alley-oop on a pass from P.J. Hairston, and rebounded his own bucket. He grabbed the rebound and put it back in to give the Tar Heels an 18-point lead barely nine minutes into the game.
“I take full responsibility for that," McDonald said, ducking his head and grinning after being asked about sending team’s 31-for-31 assist-to-bucket possibility askew.
In all seriousness, the Tar Heels -- who have a freshman starting at point guard and three other rookies who played double-figure minutes on Saturday -- say they’re putting a lot of emphasis on making smart passes, trying to limit turnovers and giving credit where credit is due. And for good reason.
“When we move the ball, we’re very successful," said UNC coach Roy Williams, who wasn’t quite as pleased with his team’s offensive success when it didn’t move the ball. The Tar Heels shot 36.8 percent in the second half and got outscored 43-36.
Plus, last year, sophomore James Michael McAdoo said, the team sometimes strayed too often from pointing to the passer. This season, the forward said, the salute been restressed.
“It definitely is something that [new assistant coach] Hubert Davis brought back when he came back, that he’s emphasized; he said it was second nature when he played here. He was a shooter, so he probably had to point to a lot of passers," McAdoo said. “It’s an opportunity to thank the passer, to bring the team closer together, even when you’re in the middle of a game.”
It takes a while for it to become second nature, though.
Freshman hear of the tradition from coaches, and teammates pass it down (so to speak) in early practices. But McDonald, who led the team Saturday with 14 points, said he can remember when he was a rookie and wanting to throw up a "3" sign or look at the crowd after he hit a long shot, like in high school.
“And coach would yell at me, ‘Point to the passer!’” he said.
Eventually, he got the gist, and he showed after several other buckets against ETSU.
And so will these newbies, he said.
“You just have to remember: whoever passes you the ball, point at them," said freshman forward Brice Johnson, who finished with 12 points. “Be a good teammate."