Down seven points with just under eight minutes to play, UNC needed a spark.
While the North Carolina men's basketball team couldn't buy a bucket, Notre Dame forward Nate Laszewski caught a pass and drained a jumper out from Wilmington.
Okay, maybe not Wilmington, but with 17 second-half points to his name, the state outline on the Dean Dome court could hardly do him justice.
Last season, it was Laszewski who nailed a 3-pointer from the left wing to stun the Tar Heels in a season filled with tough breaks. This year, on Saturday, the Fighting Irish simply looked like the better team.
But then things changed. When that spark was needed, it was delivered via the energetic work horse who has fueled North Carolina all season. While Leaky Black’s floater gave the Tar Heels the win, it was first-year forward Day’Ron Sharpe who powered them to a 66-65 victory on Saturday.
After a Caleb Love 3-pointer trimmed the Tar Heels’ deficit to four, Sharpe darted in front of Laszewski and drove coast to coast for a layup. The next time down, he corralled a miss from Armando Bacot and tipped it in to tie the game. Then he hit two free throws to put North Carolina ahead.
Although the personal 6-0 run directly led to the comeback, Sharpe’s aggressiveness all throughout the second half was infectious on the rest of the team. He fought for positioning, drew fouls and did everything else a stellar big man should do, en route to a career-high 25 points along with nine rebounds.
“I just ran to the front of the rim and posted up, and I was kind of hot, so they couldn’t stop me from scoring,” he said. “So I just kept going up.”
The Tar Heels held a massive 21-3 advantage on the offensive glass and Sharpe contributed with seven offensive rebounds of his own. Despite the large total, head coach Roy Williams swore the stats didn’t tell the whole story.
“He is a load around the basket,” Williams said. “I was shocked when I found out he only had nine rebounds, I thought he had 15. He was a man in there.”
In five of the first eight games this season, UNC has been plagued by slow starts, falling into double-digit first-half deficits that were sometimes too large to overcome. Since Sharpe has been inserted into the starting lineup, the energy has been present from the opening tip, which has helped the Tar Heels avoid these early holes.
While Sharpe can most commonly be seen taking out his aggression on other college opponents, he wants everyone to know that nobody is spared from his highly-charged motor.
“I’m a guy that plays hard every possession, whether I’m playing pickup, in games, backyard, against my mom or something like that," Sharpe said, "I’m going to play hard 24/7.”
With just 10 collegiate games under his belt, Sharpe still has areas where he can improve, such as handling double teams and being more efficient with his scoring. Williams knows Sharpe is still learning, but hinted that his potential is even greater than his 25-point performance on Saturday night.
“I told him that I don’t need him to go 9-19 because I think he can go 9-12 or 9-13.” Williams said.
In the meantime, Sharpe will look to use his raw athleticism to steer the Tar Heels back in the right direction. If the team hopes to follow Dean Smith’s orders to “play hard, play smart and play together,” following Sharpe’s relentlessness could be the blueprint.
“You see the way he plays, there’s no way he’s not beat up — but every single day he comes in on another level, and his motor is going to take him over the top,” Black said.
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