ATLANTA -- Every time North Carolina assistant strength and conditioning coach Jackie Manuel sees forward James Michael McAdoo, he asks the freshman one question: “You hear that clicking noise?”
McAdoo’s response: Yes. Finally.
Perhaps just in time for the Tar Heels.
With All-ACC forward John Henson icing his sprained left wrist for most of the game, McAdoo tied a career high with 14 points, and added eight rebounds, in top-seeded UNC's 85-69 victory over Maryland on Friday in the ACC tournament quarterfinals. It continued a pattern of aggressive, confident and more controlled play over the last month or so -- and could be key if Henson misses any more time because of his injury.
The junior’s status will be a game-time decision for Saturday’s semifinal with NC State.
“We’ll continue to ice it and see what happens tomorrow,’’ said Henson, who sustained the injury early in the first half when he was trying to break a fall after he was fouled. X-rays taken at halftime were negative. “… But the team did fine without me, especially with how James played.”
It seems like it’s been a long time coming for McAdoo, the 2009 USA Male Basketball Player of the Year who was one of the highest-rated forwards in his freshman class.
He showed glimpses of his potential early in the season, when he would sprint in front of the fast break, or battle for a rebound. But all too often, McAdoo struggled to finish around the hoop -- coach Roy Williams even threatened the bench with running on one occasion, if the unknowing freshman didn’t finish strong on a particular play with a dunk -- as he struggled to find a place in UNC’s system.
Then all of a sudden, right around UNC’s late-January win over N.C. State, McAdoo started hearing that clicking noise.
Mostly because he met with a few coaches, and started hearing what they were telling him: that he was needed, that he could contribute more.
“The difference in high school basketball to the ACC is a big difference,’’ Williams said. “I can't tell you exactly when it [was], but even when he was struggling I kept putting him in the game, until one day I finally told him, I said, 'Hey. I must think you're pretty good because you're not playing very well, and I keep putting you in. So why don't you just go ahead and play well?”
The turnaround began on the practice court, McAdoo said, and realizing what playing hard there would mean when it mattered.
“I wasn’t really very fond of practice; I never have been,’’ he said. “But I just really bought into the way you play is how you practice, and that really has helped me.”
Teammates noticed the change in workouts -- the way he battled harder for rebounds, worked more on his shot, focused on defense.
And Maryland noticed it Friday, too, as the 6-foot-9 athlete buried jumpers, took at least one charge, hit the boards and frustrated the Terps big men.
“I was disappointed we couldn’t score more on McAdoo,’’ Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “I thought we could score on him. He is not 7-foot.”
No, but he was aggressive. And focused. And confident.
Harrison Barnes and Reggie Bullock led the Tar Heels with 15 points apiece, and point guard Kendall Marshall (13 points, 12 assists) set the ACC single-season record for assists. Guard Terrell Stoglin scored 30 for Maryland.
But McAdoo made 5-of-8 shots in 29 minutes, and made a difference -- especially with Henson out.
"James Michael was big,'' Williams said.
And now, he’s determined to stay that way.
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.