Leslie McDonald shot 0-for-2 against NC State and grabbed just one rebound. Yet he still managed to make a key contribution during one of the most important stretches of the game.
When McDonald entered the game with 7:42 left, he immediately drew the defensive assignment on the Wolfpack's Scott Wood, one of the fastest three-point triggermen in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Wood had fired through two consecutive three-pointers just minutes earlier, the last with Dexter Strickland hanging all over him. It was exactly one of those shots when, as Roy Williams often says, "All you can do is shake his hand."
The Tar Heel junior didn't want to have to shake Wood's hand. After a Marcus Paige three-pointer, the duo almost immediately got into a bit of a slap fight, with Wood raising an elbow near McDonald's neck and McDonald responding in kind. The play resulted in a double foul, and State responded by running an offensive set they'd already used twice to free Wood near the corner or the wing for a three-pointer.
The Tar Heels were aware of the strategy. During two sets of pre-State practices this season, they'd spent considerable time discussing Wood. "North Carolina State has been playing basketball longer than I've been alive," Williams told his team at practice earlier this year. "Scott Wood has the second most three-pointers in their school's history. So know where he is."
Wood makes it especially difficult to defend him off the ball. He's a crafty senior, so he knows all the tricks. He doesn't just run around screens. He slingshots around screens, like a roller derby competitor. He might even give a little nudge, to get a defender going one way, then dart the opposite direction. That's what he did to McDonald before curling around a C.J. Leslie screen. But McDonald stayed with him, and was there when Wood caught a pass from Lorenzo Brown.
"I wanted to try to make him dribble the ball," McDonald said. "When he sets his feet and shoots, he makes a high percentage of those. My focus was to make him dribble and put as much pressure as I could on him."
Indeed, Wood couldn't fire a three-pointer because McDonald was in his space. He took a dribble, but he's not a penetrator, and eventually had to pitch the ball out to the top of the key again. The possession ended in a shot clock violation.
After McDonald swished a pair of free throws--on a one-and-one--he did it again defensively. This time, Wood came from in front of the State bench all the way across the court around the top of the key. He got screens from Leslie and Richard Howell, the Pack's two biggest players. But McDonald wriggled around both of them and perfectly contested Wood's catch-and-fire three-pointer, which barely drew iron.
Defense is likely to be at a premium again tomorrow night at methodical Clemson, and those types of plays are what the Memphis native has quietly done more regularly as a junior. He also played very well defensively against Virginia Tech's Erick Green this season--at the time, the nation's leading scorer. What is it Williams always says about his bench? "When I put you in, you can't hurt the team," he says.
That's especially true with the short rotation the Tar Heels have used lately. And McDonald has found a way to actively help his team, which explains why he's the only reserve to see his minutes increase over the last four games (He's averaging 18.5 minutes with the shorter rotation, as opposed to 17.8 minutes in conference games before the switch).
Carolina was +17 with him on the court against NC State, including the game-turning stretch late in the second half when he entered with the Tar Heels facing a one-point deficit and promptly made two solid defensive plays, swished a couple free throws and handed out an assist in less than two minutes.
"My main focus is doing whatever I can to help the team," McDonald said. "I want to contribute. If I need to score points, so be it. But if my teammates are shooting better than me, I need to set screens for them or get assists. And whether your shot is falling or not, you can always play excellent defense."