CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - James McCants often told college coaches that his son Rashad was going to be the next Michael Jordan.
Although the mercurial sophomore guard certainly has shown flashes of brilliance during his first two seasons at North Carolina, yesterday might have been the first time he resembled the school's biggest star.
Not only did McCants make the game-winning three-point shot with 6.2 seconds remaining to beat top-ranked Connecticut, 86-83, before 21,750 roaring fans at the Smith Center, but he also had scored his team's previous seven points (27 overall) to prevent the ninth-ranked Tar Heels from losing their second straight game.
When Huskies guard Ben Gordon missed a spinning three-pointer at the buzzer, the North Carolina student section poured onto the court to celebrate the school's record-tying 10th victory over a No. 1 team. McCants had gone from goat to hero in the course of three days.
"The boy who's been criticized more than anybody but Saddam," North Carolina coach Roy Williams said of McCants, who had hit a big three-pointer but then made a careless mistake that led to a game-sealing technical foul in Wednesday's six-point loss at Maryland. "He made a big-time basket. I think that was fitting for him."
Said McCants: "It was a dream situation. I never really thought it would happen. Guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe [Bryant] hit game-winning shots. I always said that if I was put in that situation, I would try to shine."
The late-game heroics by McCants overshadowed another huge performance by Emeka Okafor, Connecticut's All-America junior center, and ruined what had been a spectacular comeback by the Huskies (14-2). Okafor finished with 29 points on 12-for-18 shooting, to go along with 13 rebounds, six blocked shots and three steals.
"All losses are frustrating," Okafor said. "To play so hard and to fall so short, you can't say we didn't try. With a loss like this, we have to find a positive."
It would certainly be in the way Connecticut stormed back from a 50-36 halftime deficit and a 16-point hole in the second half to take a 70-67 lead on a three-pointer by Gordon (10 points, 3-for-14 shooting) with 9:15 to play. The Huskies got a big lift from freshman forward Josh Boone (South Carroll).
"We showed a lot of heart," said Boone, who scored eight of his 10 points in the second half, shot 5-for-6 from the field and also had three blocked shots. "We showed a lot of courage."
In some ways, so did North Carolina (11-3), which is still a young, fragile team in its first season under Williams. Since starting the season with six wins, North Carolina suffered a triple-overtime loss to Wake Forest and narrow defeats to Kentucky and Maryland.
"It was more a bounce-back situation from Maryland. You can't let games slip through your hands like that," said McCants, whose reach-in over the end line Wednesday night led to two technical free throws by Chris McCray.
Sophomore Sean May saw progress yesterday in the way the Tar Heels handled Connecticut's comeback.
"I think last year we would have folded," May said. "We're definitely going in the right direction."
May didn't even mind that the Tar Heels' victory likely will give rival Duke the No. 1 ranking.
"We don't care about the rankings," May said. "Duke's a good team. If they live up to the No. 1 ranking, it doesn't make a difference to us. We've just got to keep getting better."
As long as McCants improves, so will the Tar Heels. Yesterday was reminiscent of the way Jordan, as a sophomore, took over a game against top-ranked Virginia in 1983. But if you listened to Roy Williams, it wasn't McCants who took over yesterday.
"I don't think he took over," Williams said. "He ran the plays I told him to run. He hit the shots I told him to hit. I think I took over. But he did make a big-time shot."
Just like you-know-who.