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The Daily Tar Heel

Joel James’ role as emotional rock takes toll

UNC player Joel James (42) drives toward the basket.

UNC player Joel James (42) drives toward the basket.

James doesn’t wear his emotions on his sleeve so much as his emotions wear him as their vessel. It’s a tough task to be a team’s emotional rock, but James has embraced it in his time at North Carolina. Wednesday night, though, he was challenged with a harder one ­– guarding one of the nation’s premier players, Jahlil Okafor.

“He’s a guy who’s going to get his,” guard Marcus Paige said Tuesday. “We’re going to have to deal with that.”

For 12 minutes Wednesday, that onus fell on James.

In his toughest matchup to date, James gave UNC 12 minutes of leave-everything -on-the-court. He gave six points on 3-for-4 shooting, five rebounds and a steal, yet No. 15 North Carolina fell in overtime to the No. 4 Blue Devils 92-90.

It would be a disservice to pretend as though James’ contributions could be wholly encapsulated in digits, though. That type of contribution was as present as ever Wednesday night in Durham.

“He’s invested,” Coach Roy Williams said. “We need everybody to be invested like that.”

“He prides himself on being an energy guy, a bench guy who can give us a different look and he did exactly that today,” Paige said. “He got us going by his actions on the court and his vocal leadership.”

In the second half, that leadership was mostly contained to the bench.

For 16 minutes in the second half, he could only watch as his teammates improbably stole a lead and then gave it right back. He was confined to the sideline when the deciding plays were materializing. For most of the second period, he was a spectator.

“If you didn’t care who won the game, you had to enjoy a great college basketball game,” Williams said.

But James cared. You didn’t have to ask him to figure that out. In fact you couldn’t have. He ducked from the cameras and microphones that swarmed the locker room at the end of the night, red eyed and sullen faced.

Being an emotional rock takes its toll.

“You can’t play this game without emotion,” forward Brice Johnson said. “You have to be in to it. Joel is probably torn up more than any of us.”

Sitting eight feet from Johnson were the UNC jerseys the team had worn that night, lumped together in a pile as deflated as the Tar Heels themselves, ready to be washed.

James’ No. 42 jersey didn’t just need to be washed. It needed to be sewn. That emotion that fuels his teammates had taken over him. His ripped jersey was the unlucky target.

No one could blame him for that. James is a role player, one whose passion is rarely matched, and whose on-the-court contributions are steadily improving.

“Joel is a big piece to our puzzle that we’re trying to put together,” forward J.P. Tokoto said.

But Wednesday night, James was the one in pieces — how could he not be?

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