For redshirt senior Leslie McDonald, tonight represents an occasion five years in the making — one that at times, seemed like it might never happen.
There’ve been highs — 21 points against Duke in the midst of a nine-game win streak — and there’ve been lows in his career — an ACL tear, a year on the bench rehabbing it, an NCAA investigation.
But tonight against Notre Dame, McDonald will compete on the Smith Center court for the last time alongside fellow seniors James Manor, Denzel Robinson and Wade Moody.
“He’s accomplished a heck of a lot, and he’s been in a lot of big games and made big plays for us,” coach Roy Williams said Saturday. “It’ll be emotional (tonight). There’s no question.”
In his five-year career, McDonald saw a little bit of everything.
He was most recently in the middle of an investigation stemming from involvement with a designer mouthguard company, but McDonald doesn’t consider his nine-game hiatus to open the season the low point of his career.
No, that came in July 2011 when he tore his right ACL in a summer league game.
It was an injury that changed everything. McDonald was in the midst of what Williams called his best offseason yet. He spent the summer improving his shot and growing into a leader as an upperclassman.
But one misstep derailed a season of what might have been.
“You can say that my lowest low was when I got injured,” said McDonald following a 14-point performance at Virginia Tech Saturday. “It was a hard time for me because I’ve never dealt with an injury like that. It just did something to me.”
The injury halted any momentum leading into the 2011-12 season, and McDonald was forced to watch UNC’s Elite Eight run from the sidelines.
When he returned the following season, McDonald struggled to regain his confidence. He averaged only 7.2 points playing nearly 18 minutes per game. He launched 117 3-point shot attempts and made 42. He was a streaky shooter at best, triggering groans from the crowd when he hurled and missed shot after shot.
He spent the summer before his redshirt senior year embroiled in another type of adversity when he was implicated in the promotion of a designer mouth guard company.
Though much of his offseason plight was eclipsed by a P.J. Hairston-sized shadow, McDonald spent the first nine games of the season dressed in a suit along side Hairston on the bench. It was a time he wasn’t sure would ever end. While people made billboards and Twitter trending topics centered around the release of Hairston, McDonald sat quietly beside him, waiting to be unchained.
His offseason actions left him stripped of leadership privileges by Williams, and he was banished to the proverbial dog house with Hairston in the preseason.
McDonald returned to the floor with little fanfare. Fans and pundits still focused on Hairston’s unresolved case, not McDonald’s reentry to the lineup. It wasn’t the return of the prodigal son by any means, but his reinstatement gave the Tar Heels much-needed depth in the backcourt and added another 3-point threat.
After knocking down four of nine 3-point attempts in his return against Texas, McDonald struggled to find consistency behind the arc.
But against Duke on Feb. 20, it all clicked for the 23-year-old. He lit up the Blue Devils for a season-high 21 points on 9-of-12 shooting from the floor. McDonald utilized all areas of his game instead of simply relying on his 3-point shot.
With two games remaining in the regular season, McDonald is the team’s third leading scorer, averaging 11 points per game.
It’s been a long, bumpy road for McDonald, and tonight he’ll get the chance to celebrate the culmination of five-years’ work.
“He’s been here a long time,” sophomore Marcus Paige said. “He’s been a witness to the full spectrum of Carolina basketball.
“I’m happy for him. It’s going to be a fun day and hopefully the underclassmen can do our best to send him out of Chapel Hill with a win.”
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