McDonald finally hits shots, leads UNC past No. 5 Duke

Leslie McDonald had a season-high 21 points as UNC won its eighth straight ACC game. 

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When North Carolina head coach Roy Williams was doing one of his pregame interviews, he said that senior guard Leslie McDonald needed to "step up and make some shots" for his Tar Heels to have a shot at beating Duke. 

That had to have made North Carolina fans pretty nervous because in a game that often features unlikely heroes, McDonald was perhaps the most unlikely. 

He missed the first nine games of this season due to NCAA violations, and he sat out an entire season in 2012 after tearing his ACL in a summer league game. He hasn’t been quite the same player since he’s been back, never had the kind of consistency many — including himself — thought he might.

And after making 8-of-17 three-pointers in his first three games this year, he’s been 19-of-78 from beyond the arc in the 14 games since, and he had made two of his last 16 shots over the previous two games combined. 

Fans were starting to get antsy. Mostly because McDonald had never shown he could do anything besides shoot three-pointers. If he can’t make shots, fans wondered aloud, what’s the point? 

"People give him a hard time: he’s a shooter, he’s got to knock down shots," UNC sophomore point guard Marcus Paige said. "But I knew he was due for a game where he was going to make shots and come up big for us, just because of the work he’s put in this year and how much invested he is in our team."

He had 28 points in the four games combined entering the Duke game. On eight made field goals.

As the North Carolina (19-7, 9-4 ACC) crowd rushed the court after its 74-66 win over a top-five Duke team (21-6, 10-4 ACC), McDonald was the top scorer on either team with 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting. 

"Everybody in the locker room feels really good for Leslie right now," Williams said. "It’s been a hard time for the youngster, and he missed a whole year with the knee injury. He was big for us tonight and we needed him to be big."

Particularly in the first half, as he scored 11 of his team’s 30 points and essentially kept the Tar Heels in the game. But he was just as good in the second while his teammates stepped up around him.

"He’s making baskets and it’s almost like we’re leaving him hanging, like, somebody step up and help him," Paige said. "He’s out there going Michael Jordan on us and we need guys to step up and contribute. He did a great job and eventually we started getting guys involved and helping him out. It was a big night for him."

It was what kept the crowd involved in the game, too. Many assumed this game would lose some of its luster after it was postponed last Wednesday because of a winter storm. The crowd in Chapel Hill would have been nearly all students. The players were looking forward to it, certainly.

The Dean Dome has earned its reputation as a somewhat dead environment at times. It’s a crowd that, with few exceptions, wants to be shown something to cheer about on the court before getting involved themselves.

Duke, though, is different. The atmosphere is electric, the tension and excitement is palpable. And the crowd was involved from the get-go, and they never let up, even as the Tar Heels got down as many as 11 points with 15:07 to go. 

McDonald said at one point when he exited the game, he was sitting on the bench and the crowd was yelling so loudly that his ears hurt. "I was like, ‘Wow, this is the loudest I’ve ever heard the Smith Center’," McDonald said.

McDonald couldn’t quite pinpoint what was different for him personally that night, why he could suddenly hit shots. He didn’t wake up this morning feeling like something special was going to happen. 

But finally, the mystery was solved — kind of. He changed shoes. 

"I think my cousin just showed me these type of shoes that look pretty nice with our jerseys," McDonald said. "Me and (junior James Michael McAdoo) decided for the Duke game, we were going to switch it up. We were going to go all Carolina blue, no pink. Just go out there in Carolina blue. And we did it."

Introspective and unassuming, the Memphis native is a favorite among his teammates because of what he’s been through and his demeanor. 

He’s always been accountable, even through struggles, and realistic about his role on this team. 

But for a night, anyway, as he drove to the basket and made all eight of his two-point attempts, he felt like he was back to his high school days. Which he said was also probably the last time he had made that many two-pointers. 

"I was feeling pretty hot, but I was trying to play within the concepts of the team, just taking good shots, nothing ill-advised," McDonald said. "They were looking for me, and I knew later in the game that McAdoo and Paige would get hot. So I was waiting for them."

And they did — particularly Paige, who had all 13 of his points in the second half and most down the stretch. But McDonald still contributed in the second half, too — six of his 10 second-half points came in the final five minutes, including the fastbreak lay-up that basically sealed it with 26 seconds to go. 

"I knew it was going to come sooner or later. Just the way he’s been playing lately, the way he’s been so even-keeled throughout the season, the obstacles he had to overcome and note playing well the last couple games, not shooting the ball well," McAdoo said. "As his teammates, we’re not going to stop passing him the ball. We’re not going to tell him to stop shooting the ball. 

"I think today was just — somewhere deep down inside, he just realized today was the day to be a man and finally hit some shots."

His teammates are aware of the outside chatter surrounding him, though. With as much love as they have for him, they want him to be remembered more fondly because they know what he’s gone through. And they know that a game like this against Duke is something that can immortalize him in Tar Heel lore forever.

"I think it’s more exciting than me personally playing well, just seeing a guy like Leslie that’s gone through so much, to play like he played today," McAdoo said. "People will never forget him for today, I think."