SAN ANTONIO--On February 12, when the Duke game at the Smith Center was postponed and everyone was sent home, there were only two players out on the court as the scheduled 9 p.m. tipoff time approached. One was Luke Davis, working on ballhandling.
The other was James Michael McAdoo, who was practicing his free throws.
Early on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, Tar Heel basketball student manager Liz Goodwin works out at the Smith Center. Usually, she sees one other person on those visits:
James Michael McAdoo, working on his free throws.
After practice most days, freshman Kennedy Meeks is tired. As he leaves the court, he usually hears the bouncing of one solitary basketball. By now, you probably know who it is:
James Michael McAdoo, staying after practice to work on his free throws, shooting until he feels comfortable at the line.
So when he toed the line with 3.5 seconds left in a tie game in Friday's NCAA Tournament game against Providence, you might have been thinking about his 53.7 percent season conversion rate. You might have been thinking about his 5-of-15 performance against Texas, or 2-for-6 against Miami, or 1-for-6 at Syracuse.
That was a long time ago. Between then and now, McAdoo has been asked about free throws virtually every single day. When they don't go in, people want to know why he can't make them or, more humorously, why he doesn't practice them. When they do go in, people want to know why he doesn't just make them all the time.
Every day someone asks. Every day he gives a similar polite answer. Every day he goes back to the gym, trying to get comfortable. That's what he thought about, while everyone else was biting their fingernails and white-knuckling their remote.
"Routine," McAdoo said. "I was thinking about the same routine that has been working the last couple of games. Get my feet set, get my legs underneath me, and follow through with my elbow straight."
He's right--the junior was a combined 12-for-15 from the line against Duke and Pittsburgh in Carolina's last two games, but hadn't attempted a free throw yet against the Friars.
With plenty of free time as Providence substituted for a player who had fouled out and then called a timeout, Roy Williams tried to lighten the mood with a joke about golf.
Marcus Paige, who had made two enormous three-pointers in the final 90 seconds, knew he wanted to take McAdoo's mind off the fact that he was essentially shooting for Carolina's season, but wasn't sure exactly what to say. He ultimately decided his best choice was simply to tell McAdoo the truth. Paige, clearly the best free throw shooter on the team, knew. He'd seen all the extra shots.
"All those thousands of extra free throws you've shot, they're about to pay off," Paige told McAdoo.
On the bench, his teammates could do nothing but sit and watch, their fate entirely out of his hands and entirely in McAdoo's hands. Kennedy Meeks leaned over to his teammates.
"He works every day after practice on his free throws," the freshman said. "He's going to make these."
McAdoo made the first one and then did the most McAdoo thing ever--missed the second one too hard but barreled into the lane and snagged the offensive rebound.
The Friars, of course, sent him back to the line, this time with 1.7 seconds remaining. All those same emotions, all those same nerves, and the same result. First one cleanly through, second one caroms wildly, Tar Heels win the game, 79-77. Be honest, you never thought you'd read this sentence:
James Michael McAdoo saved the season from the free throw line.
Not that he would tell you that, naturally.
"I'm not going to be the guy who says I won the game or anything like that," McAdoo said. "I was thankful for the opportunity to step up and be the guy who had the opportunity to help our team over the hump."
In the Tar Heel locker room, McAdoo exchanged an emotional hug with assistant coach Hubert Davis, who has been present for most of those extra free throw sessions.
The second-year assistant coach is perpetually positive, so it's sometimes hard to tell when he's exceptionally happy. This was one of those times. Davis looked like one of his kids had just brought home a straight-A report card.
At shootaround on Thursday, Davis told Carolina's players, "This is an NBA arena. You know what that means: if you get the ball up on the rim, it will go in. The NBA rims are bigger than the rims at the Smith Center."
Davis taps you lightly on the shoulder. "I think a couple of them believed me," he says with a grin.
McAdoo did. He recited Davis' advice as one of the things he remembered when he went to the line.
More importantly, though, McAdoo remembered all the hours the two had spent together in the Smith Center, all the extra shots, all the shoot-until-it-gets-comfortable.
Davis remembered them, too.
"As a coach, there is absolutely nothing better than to see a kid put in the time and work on something, and then getting to prove it in a game and having it come to fruition," Davis said. "There is nothing better. Nothing."
He gave you a lot of credit for those shots, Davis is told.
This news finally makes Davis' smile disappear.
"No," he says firmly. "James Michael did this. I can't tell you how much time he put in on it. James Michael is the one who did it. He did this himself."
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.