Henson's play, smile motivates team

CHARLOTTE — John Henson has the smile that makes a mother’s heart melt the first time she’s introduced to the new boyfriend.

He had every reason to display his boyish grin after sinking his 26th point with 16:49 remaining in the second half.

And as he jogged down the court, he kept that smile on his face nearly ten seconds into the shot clock — even playing defense with the look of content.

“It’s not a regular smile — it’s the cheesiest smile,” UNC’s Leslie McDonald said. “I tell him his head is already small so his smile takes up all his head.”

Henson smiled all the way to a career-high 28 points in his NCAA tournament debut against the Long Island Blackbirds. He tallied buckets on 10-of-16 shooting from the field and 8-of-10 from the line to go along with his 11 rebounds.

He and fellow big man Tyler Zeller took advantage of their height against an undersized LIU team. Henson topped the Blackbirds’ tallest starter by three inches and tied a team NCAA tournament record six blocks.

“We always try to focus on throwing the basketball inside,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “We’ve done that ever since I started coaching. I think those guys produce and all of a sudden those outside shots start to be more open.”

Henson got his career high before the Tar Heels went into the halftime locker room with 20 points. But in the first half, Henson found himself on the floor just as many times as he was above the rim.

A Jamal Olasewere elbow to the face made Henson take a seat. A few possessions later he fell down while making a lay up in the process.

But halfway through the first half he felt the ground harder than he had all night. Henson, who typically hangs an extra second on the rim during a dunk, held on a bit too long and fell flat on his tailbone.

“When I dunked the first one my fingers were slipping and I could kind of feel me coming down,” Henson said. “I was fortunate that I caught my ground because that could have been bad. It comes with it when you dunk.”

As he collected himself, he hustled downcourt with a embarrassed grin across his face.

“It seems like nothing ever upsets him,” teammate Justin Watts said. “When he’s out there swatting shots and smiling, and talking a little trash like he always does, it livens everybody up and makes the game a lot more fun.”

The eight points Henson collected at the line may be the most impressive stat on the sheet. The stripe had been the albatross to Henson’s game all season until recently, where he’s gone 27-for-39 in the past eight games to increase his free-throw percentage to 49.2 percent.

Williams said Henson has always shot them well in practice. He once hit 76 out of 100 after a practice earlier this season and went 158-for-200 during a full week.

“I can’t even tell you what it is but something’s just clicking,” Henson said. “I finally got a routine
down and things to do that’s helping me hit them and now it’s just a matter of maintaining and shooting even more.”

Whether he’s making free throws, swatting shots or falling on the ground, Henson’s play puts points on the board and boosts the Tar Heels’ morale.

“For me and for the team it brings a good spirit,” teammate Dexter Strickland said. “He’s a big clown. Just to have the game he had is good for us. It gives him the confidence, and when you have
confidence, you play even better.”

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