Few noticed Sterling Manley this past Saturday night, and that was for good reason.
As the 6-foot-11 forward kneeled by the scorer’s table at Littlejohn Coliseum, he watched his head coach, Roy Williams, drop to one knee in what was later confirmed as a brief vertigo spell.
After Williams was escorted off the court, Manley played the last 54 seconds of the first half — a telling sign in his recovery from a left knee injury. The soreness kept him sidelined for 16 games, including all of ACC play up to that point.
In less than a minute, Manley was involved in UNC’s last two scores of the first half. After Clemson’s Elijah Thomas elbowed him in the face, drawing a flagrant foul, Manley made one of two free throws. Then, he assisted on a Cameron Johnson 3-pointer with 30 seconds left.
If his health improves, Manley could provide UNC with an intriguing bench prospect for next week’s ACC Tournament in Charlotte.
As a first-year, Manley played in all 37 of UNC’s games off the bench. Some of his best performances came in ACC play against teams that compelled North Carolina to play big more frequently.
Against Syracuse and 7-foot-2 Paschal Chukwu this past season, Manley played 17 minutes and scored 12 points. Against Georgia Tech and 6-foot-10 Ben Lammers, he scored nine points on perfect shooting from the field.
Manley played just two minutes against Boston College on Tuesday, so his minutes on Saturday against Duke will be worth monitoring. If he progresses, though, North Carolina would welcome him back as a rebounder and rim protector.
Here are two more players who, for various reasons, could be X-factors for the No. 3 Tar Heels in the ACC Tournament.
Through 30 games, much of Nassir Little’s scoring has come in bursts.
He had four consecutive games of double digits in non-conference play. Three more in the middle of ACC play, including a career-high 23 against Virginia Tech.
And the first-year is on a similar streak right now: he’s scored 10 or more in three of UNC’s last four games. He kicked that stretch off with 18 points against Florida State, which included two highlight-reel dunks.
UNC has already clinched a double bye in the tournament and would play, at most, three games in three days. And those quick turnarounds could suit Little well.
Williams calls the potential lottery pick the most explosive player he’s coached at UNC. Little has showcased that athleticism multiple times this season, and he could be a tough matchup for a lower-seeded ACC team running short on fresh legs.
Little, who averages 9.6 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, has come off the bench all season for North Carolina. It’s a role he’s always accepted wholeheartedly, but he's seemed more comfortable with it as the season's progressed — his introspective quotes after UNC’s win over Florida State reflected just that.
Got an introspective Nas when I asked if it was strange to hear that his season wasn't meeting expectations when they didn't know his expectations: pic.twitter.com/SWc9Jx3jZg
As a senior, many of Luke Maye’s signature games have come at crucial moments for UNC. And he’s coming off another — 17 points, 20 rebounds and five assists versus Boston College — with the ACC Tournament around the corner.
Maye has taken a less prominent offensive role this year, something he has welcomed because it’s allowed him to focus on smaller aspects of his game. As he said after UNC’s win over Syracuse, when he had a career-high six assists: “It’s not all about points.”
After an uncharacteristic start, Maye’s statistics have mostly matched up with his 2017-18 campaign when he was named a third-team All American and the ACC’s most improved player. He’s averaging 14.9 points and a career-high 10.3 rebounds per game this season.
If Maye plays well against Duke on his senior night, the ACC Tournament could simply be a place for him to continue this late-season hot streak. And if he struggles, a return to a familiar area — Maye is from Huntersville and went to Hough High School — could offer extra motivation.