NEW YORK — Just before the tip-off of overtime during North Carolina’s win against Rhode Island on Tuesday, John Henson had to stop.
URI’s Will Martell, trying to get an advantage, twitched before the ball was thrown. Henson straightened in joking offense, looking to the crowd as if to ask, “Did that really happen?”
Never mind that the Tar Heels had barely reached overtime and had five minutes to extend their season or go home. Action stopped for a few moments while Henson hammed it up.
Immediately afterwards, UNC made its first two buckets and took control of overtime.
The freshman forward and his goofy smile have helped lift the Tar Heels out of what looked like a losing season earlier this year and into the NIT finals.
“John’s just a very light-hearted kid,” Larry Drew II said. “I think guys just feed off his energy.”
Henson’s smile came out earlier in regulation when one of his passes was so errant that Will Graves was still laughing as he walked onto the court to replace Henson, The freshman could only smile, hold his head in his hands and jog to the bench.
Since moving into the starting lineup 12 games ago, Henson’s stats and play have steadily improved. In the last six games, he’s averaging 10.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, and has eight blocks in the NIT.
“He really stepped up big for us down the stretch,” Drew said. “With his length and his athleticism, he makes it difficult for other teams to run the offense.”
But more than numbers, Henson’s nature provides levity to a Tar Heel team that, just a month ago, slid to the depths of the ACC and couldn’t build any confidence.
Henson’s seen his fair share of struggles this year as well. The rail-thin 6-foot-10 freshman struggled learning to play small forward. His weight-gain goals continue to be problematic, drawing the unyielding ridicule of teammates.
But Drew agrees that Henson continues to go about his business in good spirits.
“He just always manages to find the brightest side of the situation, and people just feed off that.”
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