Of course it would come down to free throws. A season where nothing has come easy for North Carolina would naturally hinge entirely on whether James Michael McAdoo could make a free throw.
Tie score, 3.5 seconds to play. McAdoo fouled in the lane. A delay as a Providence player fouls out. Another as the Friars take a timeout to ice McAdoo, a 54 percent free-throw shooter who hadn’t been to the line all night Friday.
During the delay, Marcus Paige walked over to McAdoo. Not much was on the line. Just the entire season.
“I told him, ‘All those thousands of free throws you’ve been shooting this year with coach (Hubert) Davis, it’s about to pay off,’ ” Paige said. “He smiled, went up and coolly and calmly knocked the first one down. He kind of had a huge sigh of relief.”
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He wasn’t the only one. McAdoo missed the second, not deliberately. The rebound caromed to the left. McAdoo got there first. He was fouled with 1.7 seconds to play. Game over.
McAdoo made one of the next two, Providence knocked the ball out of bounds, and the Tar Heels won 79-77. They survived a 36-point barrage by Providence’s stellar Bryce Cotton thanks to a clutch performance in the one area where they have struggled the most this season, McAdoo most of all.
“I haven’t shot the ball well from the free-throw line all year, but I feel confident,” McAdoo said. “Especially the last two games, I feel like I’ve been able to step up there and get in a rhythm. Especially hitting the first one, it lifted the monkey off my back.”
McAdoo going 12-for-15 from the line was about the only positive from the last two games, but if there was something lacking from the Tar Heels’ game lately, especially in those losses at Duke and to Pittsburgh in the ACC tournament, it was there Friday night -- free throws, rebounding, the fabled “sense of urgency.” And yet it was still never easy because Cotton could not be stopped.
The Tar Heels blew a nine-point second-half lead and trailed by as many as seven late, but Paige hit a 3-pointer to tie it at 77 with a minute to play and McAdoo sealed the win at the line. Just as they absorbed T.J. Warren’s 36 points against N.C. State earlier this season, the Tar Heels were able to overcome Cotton. It took all they had.
“It’s a dangerous game to be playing, definitely,” North Carolina’s J.P. Tokoto said. “We have enough guys to make winning plays at the other end as well.”
Twenty-four times, Roy Williams has taken his team to the NCAA tournament. Twenty-four times, it has won its first game. If any season, any team, was going to be different, it felt like it could be this one. The ups and the downs. The stellar wins and baffling losses. The youth. The whole P.J. Hairston fiasco. Will Graves. The continuing academic scandal.
And the free throws. So many missed free throws.
At 62 percent, the Tar Heels remain on pace for the worst free-throw performance in school history. McAdoo has missed 136 free throws this season, more than anyone but Paige has attempted.
“We’ve had our free-throw woes, but we’ve had our games where we’ve shot them very well,” Tokoto said. “Free throws have been a big thing for us, but down the stretch we made big plays.”
Tokoto did, completing a three-point play with a free throw of his own late. Paige did, hitting the game-tying 3-pointer. And McAdoo did, that free throw turning out to be the biggest play of all.