Variety is spicing up game of Tar Heels' Ellington

Posted: March 26, 2009

GREENSBORO, N.C. — The sky over North Carolina's basketball team might be, as its fans and its colors suggest, perpetually blue, but above his little piece of it earlier this season, Wayne Ellington saw clouds.

The decision of the former Episcopal Academy star to declare for the 2008 NBA draft after his sophomore season left him with little certainty. Pre-draft forecasts for the 6-foot-4 guard were so scattered - anywhere from mid-first round to mid-second - that he returned to Chapel Hill for his junior season.

Then, earlier in a season that has led the Tar Heels to tomorrow night's Sweet 16 date with Gonzaga, Ellington lost his shooter's eye. There were only eight points against Notre Dame, six against Evansville, nine vs. Rutgers. His 16.6-point sophomore scoring average was down by a couple of points even though his minutes were up.

Frustrated as much as discouraged, Ellington went to coach Roy Williams.

"I told him, you know, take the ball to the basket, defend people, rebound," Williams recalled last weekend after Ellington helped the Tar Heels defeat Radford and Louisiana State in their first two NCAA tournament games.

Ellington, a silky shooting guard, took the advice. Already Carolina's best defender, he improved on that side of the ball. And he became one of the team's best rebounders.

"There was a stretch there in ACC play when he was our second-leading rebounder," Williams said. "He was getting more rebounds than Ed Davis, Deon Thompson and Danny Green. Tyler [Hansbrough] was the only one rebounding more. So I think he gained some confidence in that, knowing that he's a very good player and the shot doesn't have to go in. That makes it a lot more pleasant when it does."

Ellington has had a pleasant month. His shooting touch - his coach knocked on wood when he made the assessment - is back. He had 34 points in a heated win over Maryland, 25 against Radford in Carolina's NCAA opener, and 23 against LSU. He hasn't been out of double figures since Dec. 28.

His regular-season scoring average has jumped nearly seven points, to 22 a game, in the postseason, including the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament.

"I worked a lot on my shot," Ellington said. "But it's like anything else: The more you shoot, the better you're going to feel."

Ellington's confidence is so high that he says he feels "like I'm throwing rocks in the ocean."

"He's playing incredible basketball right now, better than he did in the ACC season," teammate Bobby Frasor said. "And he had a good season."

Carolina might not be in Memphis for this weekend's South Regional if it weren't for Ellington. Ty Lawson's return from a toe injury got much of the credit for the hard-fought win over LSU on Saturday, but it was an explosive outburst by his fellow guard that pulled the team out of a hole.

The Heels were trailing, 54-49, midway through the second half when Ellington hit Davis with a sensational pass that led to an arena-charging dunk. On LSU's next possession, Ellington stole the ball from Bo Spencer and soloed for a layup.

Then, after an LSU miss, he coolly set himself behind the three-point line, took a pass from Lawson, and stuck a jumper that put North Carolina ahead and deflated the Tigers.

Ellington shot 7 for 13 in that game and added four assists, two steals and a blocked shot. He also came up with what Williams termed the play of the game.

As a late-game loose ball neared the out-of-bounds line, Ellington lunged and flicked the ball behind his back and downcourt, where Green grabbed it and sank a backbreaking three-pointer.

"He was incredible out there," Green said. "Every time we needed a big play, he came up with one."

Maybe more impressively for NBA scouts who might be wondering if Ellington will be able to get free for shots at the next level, he put up those numbers while being guarded by one of the nation's top defenders, 6-6 Garrett Temple.

In an NCAA game two years ago, LSU's Temple hounded Duke's shooting machine, J.J. Redick, into a 3-for-18 performance. Williams called Temple's defense "really, really, really good."

"Wayne is a great scorer, really skilled," Temple said. "He does a great job in moving without the ball. And when he catches it, he gets a lot of rise on his jump shot. So when you do contest, he's still able to get it off."

For his part, Ellington credits increased practice and the talk with his coach for the restoration of his shooting touch. The more he thinks about the rest of his game, he said, the easier his shot becomes.

"I just try to make something happen," Ellington said when asked to describe his recent play. "It doesn't have to be a bucket or anything like that. It's just making a play. . . . When the ball comes to me, I just try to make a play and make something happen for our team. I just want to make plays whether I'm making shots or not."

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com.

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