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CHAPEL HILL--- There is no doubt that senior Leslie McDonald has struggled the past couple of games.
No one will deny that. Not even McDonald himself.
But he nonetheless was eager to get the ball in the early minutes of Thursday night's game against arch-rival Duke---his last game in the Smith Center against the Blue Devils.
McDonald had averaged 29 minutes a game in the last four games leading up to Thursday night, but averaged just 7.0 points a game and was 8-of-31 from the floor in those games, also shooting 4-of-20 from behind the arc.
It didn't matter. When McDonald got the ball on UNC's opening possession Thursday night, he was firing away.
That's exactly what he did, and the shot went in. It was one of nine field goal attempts that fell for McDonald over the course of the evening, as he led the way for Carolina with 21 points in the 74-66 triumph over Duke.
"It was going to be a hard-fought game," McDonald told Tar Heel Illustrated after the game. "(I knew) I'm going to have to run through a bunch of screens. But offensively, I cannot be timid, and I had to be confident. So if I get the first shot of the game, I've got to be ready and confident to knock it down."
"So I was ready and confident. I already had it in my mind that if I was open I was going to shoot the ball."
McDonald stepped up on the biggest stage of his career so far, helping carry UNC for long stretches offensively as Marcus Paige was held scoreless in the first half, while James Michael McAdoo had only four points in the first half.
"We just had to continue play. The more times you see the ball go in the hole, you're going to be more confident. I just had to see the ball go through the hole, and that was it for me. I gained my confidence back," McDonald replied. "I knew there was going to be a time when we played Duke, and it would be crazy. I didn't know it would be like this."
McDonald, as well as his coaches and teammates, felt that his hot early shooting helped make things easier for players like Paige and McAdoo in the second half. Duke was forced to respect McDonald's outside shooting and his dribble penetration, and as such, they couldn't pay as much attention to the other UNC players on the court.
Paige scored 13 second half points, while McAdoo finished with a double-double with 10 points and 10 rebounds in the win.
"I think it (my early scoring) opened up the lane a little bit more. James Michael and the big men were able to create more once I got going. In the second half they were still pressuring me and Marcus was able to work. I wanted to get the pressure off Marcus and McAdoo so they could do their thing," McDonald said.
"We just all came together. We just knew we had to dig in deep during the second half and play together. And once we started chomping at the lead, and then gaining the lead, we saw we had a chance to win this game. We had a chance to beat a good team. So just dig deep and continue to do what we've been doing."
It was McDonald who kept the Tar Heels relatively close in the first half with 11 points, as the Tar Heels were only down by seven at the intermission 37-30 despite committing nine turnovers and allowing Duke to shoot 50 percent over the game's first 20 minutes with no turnovers over the final 15 minutes of the half.
McDonald continued to attack the lane and get past the Duke defense, as he only shot four three pointers in the game, which was only a third of his shots in the game. That's not usually the case for McDonald.
The biggest shot though was his jumper to push the Tar Heels over the edge and finally take the lead against the Blue Devils. By the 3:53 mark, late in the second half, the Tar Heels had battled back from an 11 point deficit to tie the score at 60 until Paige hit McDonald off a curl to hit the go-ahead jumper, pushing the Tar Heels into a lead they'd never look back from.
"We're a very poised team. We're very smart, but we're very hard-nosed. We know how to play hard. I think it's a different mindframe now. Seeing how we've matured the last few games shows us we're a good team," McDonald replied.
McDonald eventually helped seal the win even further for the Tar Heels, hitting a lay-up with 26 seconds left in the game to push the lead to 72-64 and really get the celebration kicked into high gear.
McDonald came in 1-6 against the Blue Devils in his Tar Heel career---he missed the 2011-2012 season due to injury---and there aren't too many players that wanted any more than he did to come out and put on a show in front of the Tar Heel faithful, especially with the up and down career he has had at North Carolina.
From season-ending knee injuries to suspensions, McDonald had something to prove and did so in the biggest game this year so far for the Tar Heels.
Ironically, in the moment he didn't even realize it was his last crack at the Blue Devils on his home floor. After the game he reflected on it a little.
"Honestly, I didn't think about it like that (being my last Duke game at home)," he said. "You just brought it to my attention---this was my last game here (in Chapel Hill) against Duke---but I just wanted to play with my teammates. I knew we were all in from the get-go. We wanted to play hard and get that victory.
If I scored zero points, as long as we get the victory, that's what I love. We got the victory, and that's it.
With little doubt, McDonald's statement game couldn't have come at a better time for the senior and for the Tar Heels, who now have eight victories in a row and are looking up at the ACC standings with a realistic shot of moving up even further in the coming weeks, while also re-entering the national polls.
And for McDonald, Thursday night's game provides him that 'grandfather' story---that moment in time which he can talk with pride about for decades to come. That glorious night when he led his beloved Tar Heels past the hated Blue Devils.