In a season when late leads have been rare for North Carolina and wins scarcer than usual, Larry Drew II wasn’t helping the Tar Heels hold on.
As Wake Forest fouled, Drew let the Deacons off the hook at the free-throw line. He missed six of eight before being summoned to the bench with about a minute to play. North Carolina’s lead withered from seven to four -- and would have been gone completely if the Deacons had hit a shot or two.
Drew has struggled this season under the weight of expectations both fair and unfair, and Saturday offered both the plus and the minus, particularly after he resurfaced to make two final free throws and secure a 77-68 win for the Tar Heels.
His defense helped contain Wake Forest guard Ish Smith, whose 5-for-21 night set the tone for the wayward Deacons, and Drew finished with eight turnovers against only three assists. On the other hand, there was that 4-for-12 mark from the free-throw line.
“I was just trying to make it interesting,” Drew joked. “I think about half of them that I missed felt pretty good. The other half, I wasn’t bending my knees and I wasn’t on my toes enough with my follow-through -- about everything that could be wrong with a free throw was probably going wrong.”
When North Carolina coach Roy Williams finally yanked him from the lineup, with 66 seconds to go, it felt less penal than merciful. Only a cut on Leslie McDonald’s chin got him back into the game.
“He was struggling to say the least,” Williams said. “I had more confidence than he did.”
This hasn’t been the easiest season for Drew, who was asked to assume the role filled with such alacrity by Ty Lawson the past three years despite lacking many of Lawson’s unique physical gifts -- most notably his speed -- not to mention Lawson’s talented teammates.
Even when he should have been celebrating a fourth ACC win, a milestone the Tar Heels usually hit in mid-January, Drew was answering questions about an Internet rumor that surfaced Friday indicating he was considering transferring.
“Some of the stuff that the guy put in there was so ridiculously false, it’s crazy,” Drew said. “Like my parents were involved in an unhealthy way? Not true at all. Or they were saying my girlfriend was involved. I don’t even have a girlfriend. Why do they put that up there?”
Why? Because it’s the kind of thing that happens when a traditional power program falls on hard times. When dominance evaporates, controversy rushes in to fill the void. A stumbling giant is an easy target.
Some of it is grounded in reality, like the fracas that ensued when Ed Davis’ conversations with an agent that morphed into his bio, briefly, being posted on that agent’s Web site. Some of it comes out of thin air, like a “report” that lists as a key factor a girlfriend Drew denies he even has.
Even if Drew is secretly interested in leaving -- and if the recruiting gurus are to be trusted, he’ll exit the starting lineup when next year’s freshmen arrive, not that Bobby Frasor fled upon Lawson’s arrival -- such scurrilous circumstances are a sign of the times for the Tar Heels.
So, for that matter, is being forced to yank your starting point guard while trying to protect a single-digit lead.
“I did tell him he would get another chance,” Williams said.
He didn’t mean Saturday, but after McDonald started bleeding, Drew went back in to help nail down a win that should give the Tar Heels a much-needed boost of confidence -- most of them, anyway.
“It’s not going to help Larry’s confidence,” Williams said. “I’m going to tell him he can’t do any worse.”