LAHAINA--As soon as he let it go, Leslie McDonald knew the lob pass he threw with 3:05 remaining and Carolina holding a 43-point lead against Mississippi State was not a good idea.
He was correct. The pass clanked off the backboard, which is usually an unfortunate outcome for a pass. McDonald turned and quickly hustled back on defense, which meant he missed the reaction on the Carolina bench.
That reaction was Roy Williams turning to the Tar Heels seated behind him and exclaiming, "That was the worst pass I have seen in 25 years of coaching basketball!"
Marcus Paige was directly behind Williams, and his face looked like Kevin Hart had just told a series of especially pointed jokes about someone's mama ("Oooohhhhhhh"). Being a freshman, Paige had perhaps never heard Williams call a pass the worst he had seen in 25 years of coaching basketball. In reality, that classification put McDonald in some elite company, joining (at least) Raymond Felton, Quentin Thomas and Kendall Marshall, all of whom have been accused of similar transgressions over the past nine-plus seasons.
There are multiple ways to respond to such a miscue. On this day, McDonald chose this one: the next time down, he tossed in a three-pointer. Forty seconds later, he fired in another one, his sixth trifecta of the day and good for a career-high 21 points. On the bench, Reggie Bullock was trying in vain to stifle a smile, realizing that McDonald had just become one of the very rare Tar Heels to shoot his way out of Williams's doghouse.
That's the kind of afternoon it was for the Tar Heels, as the team that couldn't shoot straight suddenly turned into the exact team Williams has been claiming all along that they are, pumping in 15 three-pointers (fourth-best in the history of the program) on the way to a 95-49 win in the Maui Invitational quarterfinals.
"When we're consistently getting the basketball inside and getting good balance with inside scoring and guys are shooting good three-point shots, that's when we're our best team," Williams said.
When the head coach made the comment, he verbally highlighted the word "good." Roy Williams is as unlikely to draw up a gameplan featuring 32 attempted three-pointers as he is to embrace the idea of giant stickers on the court.
But, well, when in Maui you have to be a little flexible, so the Tar Heels navigated around the three stickers and managed to convert 15 of their three-point attempts, and there wasn't much the coach could complain about. Very few of the 32 attempts were forced. Carolina still managed 22 assists on 37 field goals. On one sequence midway through the second half, Marcus Paige found J.P. Tokoto, who had a lane to the basket but found James Michael McAdoo, who had a wide open shot but instead found Desmond Hubert for a dunk. That's the kind of ball movement and unselfishness that suggests a team is grasping what their coach is telling them.
Fourteen of the 15 made three-pointers were accompanied by an assist. The only trifecta that didn't come with an assist? The halftime buzzer-beating 65-footer from P.J. Hairston--a shot the sophomore really does practice regularly, as you know if you've seen him in pregame warmups.
"If we can stay consistent throughout this whole tournament, I think people will realize who we really are and what we can really do," said Hairston, who contributed 18 points and four of the three-pointers.
Since we're only four games into the season, though, most of us might not have the same grasp as Hairston does of who, in fact, this team might really be. P.J., how about it?
"We're a complete basketball team," he said.
That remains to be seen, starting Tuesday against a Butler team that executed meticulously and perfectly in the final minutes of its buzzer-beating win over Marquette. The Tar Heels, though, haven't exactly been spending their time parasailing since their arrival on the islands.
Bullock was asked the most fun thing he had done since arriving in Maui.
"Homework," he replied.
Uh, Reggie, is that the name of a really good restaurant in Lahaina?
"Homework is the most fun thing I've done," he said. "I believe this is a business trip. I've gotten my homework done, and I've looked at film. I want to save the fun stuff until Thursday. We have to get some wins before then."