Last time I gave Harrison Ingram a Player of the Game award, I’m not going to say he didn’t deserve it, but it was more of a symbolic award for toughness and heart than it was for being the Tar Heels’ standout player in that particular game. This time, he totally was that. Against a Florida State team that’s bothered UNC mightily with its size and length in both games they’ve played, Ingram was every bit their equal, grabbing 17 rebounds when none of his teammates got more than 5 to go with his 13 points, 3 steals, and a vital play each on offense and defense late in the game block that, to me, sewed this recognition up.
Let’s start with that last point. The Tar Heels, to set the scene, have let what was a 10-point lead with 8 minutes to go dwindle down to 5 with just over 4 minutes to go; the Seminoles have gone on a 7-2 run to make the score 68-63 — and UNC’s been in the 60’s for a while. Elliot Cadeau’s drives, which have been turning into baskets and fouls for most of the game, are coming off the rim now, but he hasn’t stopped trying them, leading to too many empty possessions despite theoretically decent attempts. Cadeau tries it once more, and despite him beating his man, the ball comes out of his inside hand, hits the backboard, and comes off the front of the rim — only this time, Ingram gets to the top of the charge circle first and pushes the ball back through the cylinder, breaking the 70-point barrier and spacing the lead to 3 possessions entering the under-4 timeout. Seventy points is an arbitrary number, but it felt like a ceiling was being broken, especially in conjunction with the extra possession that Ingram’s tip-in netted. It turns out that third possession was necessary, because FSU would score 5 straight over the next 90 seconds to get within 2, where the game stayed for another 90 seconds before R.J. Davis broke the offensive drought with a tough up-and-under move in the middle of the lane. The ‘Noles tried to answer quickly by posting up Cadeau, only for Ingram to help off from the weakside, time his jump perfectly, and swat the shot attempt basically as it left Jamir Watkins’ hand. Cormac Ryan rebounded with 30 seconds left in the game, and from there, it was a free throw test that Davis was always going to pass.
It wasn’t just down the stretch that Ingram was big for UNC, though. Early on, he buoyed the Tar Heel offense with two three-pointers that were hopefully a sign that his wrist is starting to not bother him as it has for the past month and change; in the games between the Kentucky matchup and Saturday, he was shooting 34% from distance after starting the season at 43%. He also picked Florida State ballhandlers’ pockets twice early and three times in the first half, though one of those was followed immediately by a blown transition layup — it’s better to score off a turnover, of course, but taking away a possession from the opponent is never bad. Add that 10 of his rebounds came in the first half and you can pretty easily see that he was affecting the game early. His third three was also big — it gave the Heels their first lead of the second half at 51-50, completing UNC’s comeback from down 8. It didn’t last long the first time, but again, just having that first lead and turning the game from a comeback into one of trading baskets is a huge shift. A few buckets later, the Heels had a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
The two UNC point guards were the other primary candidates for this distinction. R.J. Davis led the Heels in scoring once again, including the aforementioned layup to put the Heels up 4 late and the free throws that made sure the ‘Noles didn’t have any hope of pulling the late shocker. Elliot Cadeau added a career-high 16 points to go with 6 assists to lead the team and, encouragingly, shot 8/9 from the free-throw line, and was my front-runner for PoG with about 8 minutes to go. From that point, though, he was a big reason for UNC’s scoring droughts; layups that were going in most of the game suddenly started bouncing out and he didn’t change the gameplan to move away from them, creating a lot of empty possessions. If this game had gone another way, we’d also be remembering very differently an ill-advised long jumper attempt late after an offensive rebound with not much between him and the basket. I’ll also give a shout to Cormac Ryan, who shook off his shooting woes to hit 3 of 6 three-point attempts in the 2nd half and hopefully has some of his touch behind the arc back as we roll into February.