Sophomores making big contributions for North Carolina

Published 2:10 pm Tuesday, March 25, 2008

By By AARON BEARD, AP Sports Writer
RALEIGH — North Carolina’s Deon Thompson knew how badly he played in the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. He thought about it with every extra shot he took on a pair of off days leading up to the NCAA tournament.
Frontcourt mate Alex Stepheson knew he had to play better, too. After all, All-American Tyler Hansbrough couldn’t do it all by himself.
Less than a week later, the sophomores have a renewed confidence after their strong performances helped the Tar Heels’ fast-paced offense look even stronger in routs of Mount St. Mary’s and Arkansas. Those wins sent the Tar Heels to Charlotte, where the tournament’s overall No. 1 seed will have another home-state crowd behind it when it plays fourth-seeded Washington State in the NCAA round of 16 on Thursday night.
All season, that position has been considered the biggest weakness for North Carolina (34-2). The Tar Heels lost 6-foot-9 Brandan Wright to the NBA draft after his freshman year, which opened a significant hole for Thompson and Stepheson to play alongside Hansbrough on the front line.
The 6-8, 240-pound Thompson has averaged 8.5 points and 4.8 rebounds while starting 35 games. He has a soft shooting touch around the basket and leads the team with 51 blocked shots. The 6-9, 235-pound Stepheson is a more physical presence, averaging 4.4 points and 4.8 rebounds while playing about 15 minutes per game.
Both have looked ready for the NCAAs. In a 113-74 first-round win against the Mountaineers, Thompson had 15 points on 6-for-8 shooting with eight rebounds and Stepheson had a career-high 12 points on 5-for-6 shooting and eight boards. In Sunday’s 108-77 win over the Razorbacks, Thompson finished with 16 points on 8-for-8 shooting with three blocks, and Stepheson had 10 points on 5-for-5 shooting to go with five rebounds.
The results were particularly gratifying for Thompson, who went scoreless on 0-for-5 shooting in the ACC semifinal victory against Virginia Tech and had just three points on 1-for-4 shooting in the championship win over Clemson. He came back from the tournament in Charlotte and spent two extra days working on his shot, particularly in close after shooting from the perimeter in past weeks.
Neither has had the easiest of years. Stepheson left the team for about a week in January to return to California because his father is ill, and entered the tournament with just two double-figure scoring games this year. Thompson hyperextended his left knee in a win at Virginia on Feb. 12 and played through a nagging back injury, which limited him to 4.2 points and 2.7 rebounds on 30 percent shooting over the nine games before the NCAAs.
It’s no coincidence that once Thompson and Stepheson upped their play the Tar Heels earned their easiest wins in weeks.
It certainly eases the scoring burden on Hansbrough, Wayne Ellington and Ty Lawson, which will be critical going forward for an offense averaging almost 90 points per game.