Tar Heels lean on Tokoto in fight at Notre Dame

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J.P. Tokoto drives against a defender against Maryland Tuesday Feb. 4, 2014.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A tipped pass, box-out or rebound won’t get you on SportsCenter.

J.P. Tokoto has been on SportsCenter. He knows.

The North Carolina sophomore has dunked his way into the spotlight on more than one occasion. He did so again just five minutes into Saturday’s 73-62 win against Notre Dame, receiving a feed from point guard Marcus Paige on the break, taking one dribble, cocking his arm back and then taking flight for a one-handed, arena-rattling slam.

Still, that dunk — impressive an athletic feat as it was — did little to change the course of the contest.

The dunks may draw the most attention, but Tokoto makes greater contributions in other, less highlight-worthy ways.

Coach Roy Williams called Tokoto a “stat-sheet stuffer” after Saturday’s win, and a brief look at that stat sheet shows 13 points, seven rebounds, four steals and two assists.

“The casual basketball fan will appreciate his dunks,” Paige said.

“But the way he gets out in the passing lanes, the way he rebounds as a three-man, some of those rebounds, he skies over all the big guys and gets it. He can start the break on his own, so he’s so skilled in so many aspects of the game that that’s what we really appreciate.”

When UNC struggled to score early against Notre Dame, Tokoto provided an offensive lift, scoring UNC’s first four points and nine of its first 18.

And when the second half began, Tokoto helped the Tar Heels turn up their defensive intensity, tallying three steals in the first six and a half minutes — one of which led to his own fast-break dunk.

It’s defense, Tokoto said, that he takes the most pride in.

Before Tokoto came to North Carolina, he was highly touted for his raw athleticism, his dunking prowess often compared to UNC and NBA great Vince Carter.

But when Williams recruited Tokoto, he saw things a different way.

“Coach has given me that role as the defensive stopper on the team,” Tokoto said. “(He’s) said all these nice things about all the athleticism I have and I can be the best offensive rebounder, defensive player he’s had at Carolina.

“So with him saying that, coming from coach, it’s a huge compliment. A lot of pressure, but it’s good pressure to have.”

Tokoto is tied for the ACC lead with 2.1 steals per game in conference play and helped lead the Tar Heels to a season-high 13 steals against Notre Dame.

His offensive game hasn’t yet been perfected — the free-throw line, from which he went 1-for-5 Saturday, offers its challenges — but he’s shown increased range with his jumper and said he’s tried to be more aggressive and less tentative with his shots.

“He’s a young man that’s getting better and better every day, and he’s understanding his game and his strengths and his limitations and everything every single day,” Williams said.

“He has that athleticism that is off the charts, and he’s learning how to use that … I’m really proud of the way he’s changed some things.”

From Menomonee Falls, Wisc., Tokoto put together his Saturday performance in front of about 30 friends and family members who made the four-hour trip.

When he walked out to the court after the game, they were the only fans left, huddling together and cheering loudly. They saw the dunks, the rebounds, the box-outs and the steals.

And to them, they were all highlights.

sports@dailytarheel.com

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