CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Wayne Ellington spent the first two months of the season trying to find his missing shooting touch for North Carolina. Now the junior looks like he can’t miss.
Since the beginning of March, Ellington is shooting nearly 60 percent from the floor, better than 50 percent from 3-point range and has raised his season scoring average nearly a full point. On a team in which the focus is on reigning national player of the year Tyler Hansbrough or the injured big toe of point guard Ty Lawson, Ellington is quietly playing his best basketball as the Tar Heels enter the NCAA tournament’s round of 16.
“I’m just shooting it and not thinking at all,” Ellington said. “I’m just playing in the flow and having fun. I’m into the game and just losing myself within the flow of the game.”
Ellington’s stepped-up play comes as the Tar Heels, the top seed in the South Regional, prepare to face Gonzaga on Friday as they chase a return trip to the Final Four. He’s scored 20 points for three straight games for the first time in his career, and is averaging nearly 20 points in the past six games for North Carolina (30-4).
He had 25 points in the NCAA tournament opener against Radford, then followed with 23 points on 9-for-16 shooting in Saturday’s 84-70 second-round win against LSU. That came against LSU senior Garrett Temple, who had notably shut down national player of the year J.J. Redick during the Tigers’ upset of top-seeded Duke in the 2006 tournament.
Ellington’s recent tear has only increased the scoring options for the Tar Heels, particularly when it comes to taking a late-game shot.
Ellington – who hit a last-second 3-pointer to win at Clemson last year – is one of three Tar Heels on this year’s team who have hit a buzzer-beating shot for a victory in the past two years. Hansbrough did it against Virginia Tech in last year’s Atlantic Coast Conference tournament, while Lawson hit a running 3 at the horn to win at Florida State in January.
“You’ve got to have multiple weapons to be successful,” UNC coach Roy Williams said. “Ty being healthy makes everybody else a little bit better. Wayne shooting the ball in the basket makes everybody a little bit better. That’s what you have to have more consistently than one great player. You have to have balance.”
It’s clear just from watching Ellington these days that he feels good about his shot, something that wasn’t true early in the season. Through the first 17 games, his shooting had fallen from 47 percent last year to 43 percent, while his 3-point shooting had dropped from 40 percent to 35 percent.
His scoring also had fallen about four points per game from last year’s 17-point average, robbing the Tar Heels of their top perimeter threat to complement Hansbrough inside.
Everything changed in one 91/2-minute stretch against Miami in January. After a scoreless first half, Ellington hit eight straight shots with a career-high seven of those coming from behind the arc in an 82-65 win.
He followed that with a 25-point day against Clemson and has looked more at ease since.
“Wayne’s confidence is really up,” Hansbrough said.
Although Ellington’s forte always has been scoring, he’s also become a steady rebounder in the backcourt and has improved his defense enough that he isn’t a clear liability there anymore. His biggest play against the Tigers wasn’t a 3-pointer or a drive to the basket. It was his hustle to outfight an LSU player to a loose rebound and tap the ball to Danny Green for a 3-pointer during North Carolina’s decisive 11-0 second-half run.
For Ellington, it’s about doing whatever it takes to get another shot at a national title.
“I didn’t want to be just labeled as a shooter,” he said. “I want to be a guard who can do many things.”