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October 27, 2012
A New Beginning
North Carolina's Friday night exhibition victory over Shaw was the turning of a new page in the history of UNC basketball on multiple levels.
With Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes, John Henson, and Tyler Zeller all gone to the NBA, as well as Justin Watts graduated, the torch has now been officially passed to a new generation of Tar Heels, who find themselves ranked No. 11 in the initial AP College Basketball poll for the 2012-2013 season.
It was a rocky road at times Friday, as Shaw came in and gave the Tar Heels a fierce test for well over a half, but it was a good opportunity for the UNC newcomers to acclimate themselves to their new world of big-time college basketball.
"It was good for us to get in front of a crowd," said head coach Roy Williams.
While all four rookies did some nice things in UNC's 81-54 triumph, it was big man Joel James who made perhaps the biggest impression on his new fans.
Time after time, James powered his way to the hoop or put up a nifty left-handed jump hook that was falling fo him.
And while he was just one for six from the free throw line, James connected on six of seven shots from the floor for 13 points while adding seven rebounds in just 17 minutes.
It was a nice Smith Center introduction for the Florida native, who came to UNC largely considered a project, but showed he might be farther along than a lot of folks might have originally thought.
"Joel's a big body. He gives us that big presence inside. He's going to mess it up sometimes, but I think that he does give us that inside," said Williams.
"You look at his line---6-for-7, seven rebounds, 13 points. You should take that every night, if you get that out of him, but that's going to be hard. You don't do those things every night."
"You look at it, Desmond (Hubert) played 15 minutes, Joel played 17 minutes, Brice (Johnson) played 13 minutes and James Michael (McAdoo), of course, played the most at 26 minutes, so we've got to get that kind of production," Williams continued.
Brice Johnson also had a solid initial outing in the powder blue, making four of six shots from the floor for eight points along with six rebounds, one assist and one steal.
"He's a youngster who has the ability to score," said Williams of Johnson. "He has the ability to get rebounds. He doesn't play as hard as we want him to play yet, and he understands that. He's got to do a little better job defensively, but I liked what he did."
The highlights weren't quite as plentiful for fellow rookies Marcus Paige and J.P. Tokoto but they were there, as Paige converted two field goals and had two free throws for six points to go along with six rebounds and an assist.
Tokoto brought the house down with a high-flying putback dunk in the midst of Carolina's decisive 33-4 run in the second half that broke the game wide open.
"Brice in the first half only played four minutes, had four rebounds and six points. So I told him that was pretty good. If it was going to do it like that, I'll play him more. He gave us some good moments. Joel and Brice probably played better for their opening night than Marcus and J.P. did, but I liked what they did," said Coach Williams.
The play of the UNC rookies, along with the impressive defensive effort the Tar Heels put together in the second half, allowed Williams and the players to walk away from Friday's exhibition satisfied on the whole with the team's overall performance.
"We've been trying to do things (defensively) in practice. We have station work. We have four-on-four group work, and now they've got to put it into game action and I think that's what they did," Williams said.
"We just knew that our shots weren't falling, so we had to definitely do it on the defensive end," added Reggie Bullock. "I believe that the defensive pressure started with Dexter (Strickland), P.J. (Hairston) and Leslie (McDonald) when they were in just to give us momentum on the defensive end. Once we started doing that, we knew that we just had to keep the momentum up for us to survive in the game."
"It was a great confidence booster for us. We can actually see that we can be great on the defensive end of the floor," Bullock continued.
"We're long and athletic. We've just got to keep it up, and start with practice tomorrow. We just have to keep the defensive intensity up and make Coach (Williams) believe in us to put players out there and fight every battle and every play."
Friday night was also a new beginning in the respective Tar Heel careers of Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland, as they made their returns to the UNC lineup after missing much or all of last season with knee injuries.
Strickland, returning to his starting post at the 'two' guard spot, made three of seven shots from the floor for six points to go along with five defensive rebounds, three assists and two steals.
McDonald came off the bench to score 12 points---one of just three Tar Heels in double figures---along with three assists and a rebound.
"I told him (Strickland) and Leslie I thought tonight was big for them because for Leslie it's been over a year since he's played in a game. It was good for Dexter too---what was that, eight months ago he had surgery---so I thought it was good," said Coach Williams.
"You know, you look at his (Strickland's) line and say, 'Well, I don't know how good that is.' But 21 minutes just to get back out there in action I thought was good for him and I think he is getting better everyday with his knee for sure."
"It felt great running up and down the court, defending guys on the other team," added McDonald.
"I feel good, not back to normal but I feel like I'm ready to go," said Strickland.
"I don't think (confidence is) an issue anymore. That's what I've been working on the most. Just running on it and trusting it more. I'm getting there, I'm not 100% I'm probably 99% or 98%"
Both Strickland and McDonald played key roles defensively for Carolina as they shut down Shaw in the second half to the tune of just six points over a span of over 12 minutes.
"Coach Williams, Coach (Hubert) Davis, and Coach (Steve) Robinson told us we need to put a little more pressure on the guards and they were getting easy shots that drop, easy shots in the lane. Once we put pressure on the guards and played the passing lanes, we were able to get steals and deflections and it turned into a great first play for offense," McDonald said.
"We didn't do a good job on defense or transition defense (in the first half)," said Strickland. "Our sense of urgency changed. Everybody picked it up and everybody came to play."
And for Coach Williams and the thousands of Tar Heel fans in attendance at the game, having Strickland, McDonald and the rookies come to play was a exciting thing as the Tar Heels begin this new chapter in its hardwood fortunes.