McCants scored 21 points, handed out five assists, and brought the Dean Smith Center faithful to their feet numerous times in leading the Tar Heels past Virginia, 81-67, before a frenzied crowd of 20,445.
"I'm proud of our players," said UNC coach Matt Doherty. "I'm proud of their effort. This was a big win, no question… I thought Raymond (Felton) was sensational running the show, especially in the second half. We had 20 assists and that shows good unselfish play."
McCants entered the game having scored just two points in his last pair of contests, and over a four-game stretch had simply not been himself. A back injury a week ago was partially to blame, but issues regarding attitude were a greater to concern in the Carolina camp.
But after a reported series of good practices earlier in the week, McCants was back in the starting lineup, and back in form.
"It was exciting to get back into the feeling of being out there, getting out to a great start and blowing them out," McCants said. "I know that when I'm on the floor I can put my team in a position to win, and I did just that out there.
"Making passes, I had a lot of assists, getting the crowd involved, just doing the little things."
With UNC (13-10, 4-6 Atlantic Coast Conference) having jumped out to an 8-0 lead, McCants finally scratched the scorebook, converting his second field goal attempt of the evening – a fast-break left-handed layup after a nifty behind the back pass from fellow freshman Felton. The Dean Dome erupted because it was clear the Heels were ready to play this crucial game and that McCants, or rather the "X" man, had returned.
"I think he was having a lot more fun out there," Jawad Williams said about McCants. "During that slump he was sulking around, but he was having fun tonight and it showed on the court."
Even with McCants' newfound life, Carolina, which owned first-half leads of 18-4 and 28-11 still had a tussle on its hands.
Ahead 52-49 with 11:58 left in the game, Virginia's Travis Watson made a strong move to the basket, but UNC's Byron Sanders altered the shot enough to force a miss, and came down with a big rebound which ultimately led to a pair of free throws by Williams.
But more important is it triggered a terrific defensive stint by the Mississippi freshman, as well as his mates, that enabled the Heels to separate themselves from the Cavaliers (14-8, 5-5). The run eventually reached 13-3 before UVa settled things down a bit. But Sanders' stretch of three stops of Watson, three rebounds and a blocked shot gave the Heels the final juice-injection they needed to secure the game.
"I just had to play my game, which is defense, and that's what I did," Sanders said. "This was a real good game for us on defense. The coaches did a good job of telling us what to do."
Doherty was pleased with Sanders' effort.
"Byron is one of our better defenders," Doherty said. "He's been very consistent and it was hard for me to sit Byron down because he deserves to be rewarded for his defense. But, it was nice to come off the bench with him and I thought he did a really good job competing on the defensive end against some of the big bodies they had."
Todd Billet led the Wahoos with 16 points while Watson, who grabbed 15 rebounds, added 13 but missed eight of 11 shots. Devin Smith pitched in 14 and freshman Derrick Byars finished with 12 for Pete Gillen's team.
Felton, whose ball-handling wizardry in the second half mesmerized the crowd, equaled McCants with 21 points for the Tar Heels while Williams and Jackie Manuel each had 12 points, with Manuel registering a career high nine rebounds.
UNC came out of the gate as active as at any time this season. The Tar Heels were moving extremely well on offense and as a result got plenty of open looks, including layups after quick cuts to the basket, something that had been missing over the last few weeks, save for the Duke game.
Starting a small lineup, it may have been UNC's full court pressure defense that was most surprising, and effective. It appeared to throw UVa off its game, as poor shots by the Hoos combined with UNC's efficient play equaled the huge early lead. Yet, like in the win over Connecticut, UNC couldn't hold on.
Coming out of a timeout and holding a 17-point cushion with 11:05 left, Doherty went to a lineup of Will Johnson, Sanders, David Noel, Melvin Scott, and Manuel. The quintet got just one quality look, and coincidentally or not, UNC was never exactly the same the rest of the half.
UVa, which looked completely out of sync in the first 10 minutes, regained its composure and began to get better looks at the basket. Carolina's defense, however, was good enough to hold the Hoos to just 29 percent shooting from the field, and UNC led 37-28 at the intermission.
But despite Virginia's run, the Cavs only tied the game once – at 47 – and never took the lead.
"I was really proud of the poise [our players] showed when Virginia made that run that started in the first half and concluded when they tied it up," Doherty said.
Scott said the team is growing up.
"I tell you this, earlier in the year, more in the middle, I don't think we would have finished this game off," Scott said. "Because, we are young and our execution and things like that. I think as the season has gone on we have learned to finish games.
"Coach wasn't mad and wasn't shouting at halftime, because he understands basketball is a game of runs," the sophomore from Baltimore continued. "We made a big run and they answered it to cut it. But I'm real proud of the way we responded and we kept pouring it on. And I think we are just growing and maturing as a team."
So perhaps so goes McCants' maturity so go the Tar Heels. And if that means a full alphabet in this team's daily soup, then the recipe for a possible run may be in place.
"I think we can be a good team and good teams make runs," Williams said. "I think every game from here on out is a must win game. We have to play hard, like tonight, and play well and everything will take care of itself."
And the "X" sign?
"Total domination as I said in the beginning when I created it," McCants said when asked what the gesture stands for. "I know the fans love it and I know they thrive off of it and so do I. And as long as the crowd keeps feeding off of it I'm gonna keep giving it to them."
And UNC may keep winning, too.
Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He also covers the ACC for the Wilmington Star-News/Morning Star and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.