R.L. Bynum, Correspondent
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Who is North Carolina’s go-to player when it needs somebody to take over a game?
What makes the No. 5 Tar Heels look more like a national contender every game is the fact that this is legitimately a multiple-choice question each game — sometimes with two answers.
During their four-game win streak since losing to No. 2 Virginia, Cameron Johnson (27 points against Wake Forest, 26 against Duke), Luke Maye (30 vs. Duke) and Coby White (34 against Syracuse) each have put up 25+ point games.
Trailing early in the second half against the Orange, White single-handedly seized control of the game.
At one point in the second half of UNC’s 93–85 victory Tuesday over Syracuse, White scored or assisted on 19 of the Tar Heels’ 25 points.
Playing within his limits
White said none of that was forced and it wasn’t as if he decided that he needed to take over. But he did.
“I feel like I was just playing in the flow of the game, just playing within myself, just taking what the defense gives me,” White said.
“I was just playing my game and it just worked out in my favor tonight.”
That was a bit of an understatement for White, who became the first UNC freshman to score 30 points three times.
Before his career-high performance (on only 14 shots) against Syracuse, White had endured a shooting slump, and he wondered why the ball wasn’t going in the basket for him. He didn’t need anybody to tell him he was struggling.
“I think I’m hard on myself a lot, man,” White said.
“I feel like I should play great every game. But, you’re not going to play great every game, so, just trying to get my confidence. My brother helps me a lot through it. ‘Just stay up, stay positive through it all. You hit a wall right now, but everything will pick up. Just get in the gym, get reps up and just stay locked in and trust the process.’ ”
White did what he could to get his shot back.
“A couple of days, I got a lot more reps than I normally do just because I was struggling,” White said.
“I did that and, tonight, it really helped me out.”
Figuring out how to bust through
Freshmen often hit a wall at some point during the season and it appeared that White busted through that wall Tuesday.
After combining for six 3-pointers in the previous four games on 27 attempts, he made six 3s against Syracuse on 11 attempts.
It was the fifth time White had made at least five 3-pointers in a game, but the first time since making seven against Miami on Feb. 9.
“I just came in with confidence,” White said.
“After getting my first one in, I felt pretty good. I was just trying to find my rhythm and trying to get my confidence back. I feel like for a while there, those two games, I kind of lost my touch and my shot. I was questioning my confidence a little bit, but everybody struggles. I kind of hit a wall. I think I played better tonight. I could have had less turnovers, but I played better.”
He was back to his no-hesitation trigger from the perimeter, and made all 10 of his free-throw attempts.
The last freshman to do that well from the line? Some guy named Tyler Hansbrough, who made all 14 attempts against N.C. State in 2006.
Johnson, who struggled with his shot on a night he still scored 16 points, is just glad he doesn’t have to guard White in practice.
“I don’t really have to guard Coby too much, but he is just always in attack. He is a shot maker. He is a scorer,” Johnson said.
“He is pretty strong for his size so that is a hard thing to guard about him.”
White has learned over the course of the season when to go all the way to the rim and when to pull up, and that was evident against Syracuse’s zone.
“He shoots,” said Kenny Williams, whose perimeter struggles continued as he missed all four 3-point attempts and scored eight points against the Orange.
“I wouldn’t expect him to do anything else. He found some gaps in it and was able to exploit it and got some layups, but that boy shoots. He can shoot the ball.”
Coach Roy Williams continues to call White the best scoring point guard he’s ever coached.
“Ty Lawson got to that stage later when he could score. Coby is a scorer and I have never minded a scoring point guard,” Coach Williams said.
Being a valuable piece of the puzzle
UNC again showed that it can be successful if one of its top three scorers is struggling to get points.
That was the case for Maye, who missed all four 3-point attempts against Syracuse and was held to nine points.
But he pulled down 12 rebounds and dished out a career-high six assists, which compensated some for White’s three assists against four turnovers.
A lot of Maye’s work was done from the high post in the middle of Syracuse’s zone.
“Luke did a really good job of working out from there, and I think the more we got to the high post, the more easy shots we got,” Johnson said.
“And when we weren’t, we were just around the perimeter and that was a little tougher on us.”
Just like clockwork, Roy Williams has the Tar Heels playing better and cleaning up some of the issues it had earlier this season.
“I feel like we have matured a lot,” White said.
“In the beginning of January, we were averaging 20 turnovers a game, but I think tonight we only had nine. Syracuse forces a lot of turnovers in the zone because they are really active. I feel like we have matured a lot, and the seniors have helped us mature since they have been playing college basketball for a long time.”
And, with a point guard mature beyond his years, UNC looks like it will again be dangerous in March, which it will start with road games Saturday at Clemson and Tuesday at Boston College.
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