Will Graves fell one shot short of having the game of his life on Saturday.
He had a career-high 24 points — the most he’d scored since winning the 3A N.C. high school state title four years ago, also in the Smith Center.
But his long miss from near midcourt at the buzzer left North Carolina just shy of a win.
“I told Will he was big time in the second half. I’m very proud of him,” coach Roy Williams said. “I’ve been on his case for years, and deservedly so.”
The redshirt junior has had a lot of time in Williams’ doghouse. Graves spent last year’s championship run riding the bench after being suspended for an unnamed infraction in February. His wide smile, which pops up on his face after almost every play, good or bad, has raised doubts about his attitude.
But on a team that’s going through a confidence crisis, Graves’ ever-present willingness to shoot was a good thing against Georgia Tech. After a dismal first half by the Tar Heels, Graves was the glue that kept the offense going at a fast pace.
The forward was 5-for-7 on 3-pointers after halftime, though he didn’t always take the first look he got. Once, Graves pump-faked twice before throwing it to Deon Thompson for an open jumper.
Later, with the score 61-63, he passed up a decent look from the 3-point line only to get a better one moments later and take the lead.
His 22 second-half points made up just more than half the team’s total for the period. And the only time he went to the bench, Georgia Tech went on an 8-0 run.
Graves also did the little things for UNC. He turned the ball over just once, had seven rebounds and went 7-for-8 from the line.
But a loss is a loss, and that certainly wasn’t something Graves tried to gloss over.
“Honestly, I just feel like it’s lackadaisical,” Graves said. “We’re not aggressive, we’re not showing a sense of urgency. I mean, I feel like we’re all good players, and it’s just a matter of time, but it’s not going to happen until you show enthusiasm and give great effort.”
With North Carolina losing two in a row and three out of the last four, Graves’ outstanding effort and the hope that he can become a leader on the court may be the best thing the Tar Heels have going for them.
Thompson is more vocal than in years before, and he retains the optimism of a veteran. But he was never the star of past teams, and this season has shown some inconsistency.
And for all the good esteem reaped on him by Williams over the years, Marcus Ginyard shows signs of lost confidence — and not just from his ankle injury. He doesn’t look for his shot. After the game, he talks quietly and aimlessly. When one reporter asked Williams how much pain the fifth-year senior was playing with, the coach said, “Mentally or physically?”
Graves may be the opposite. After his career day, the 6-foot-6 forward was stopped by a small crowd outside the Smith Center, and he beamed while posing for pictures.
Graves is healthy, he’s having the best year of his career and he’s hungry to establish success of his own. Maybe most importantly for the slumping Tar Heels, that smile — and the confidence that lies behind it — isn’t going anywhere.
Contact the Sports Editor at email@example.com.
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