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Back where stardom erupted

UNC's Ellington came through for Episcopal at the Palestra in '06.

Back in his Episcopal Academy days , Ellington goes up for the game-winner against Neumann-Goretti in January 2006.
Back in his Episcopal Academy days , Ellington goes up for the game-winner against Neumann-Goretti in January 2006.Read moreBARBARA L. JOHNSTON / Inquirer Staff Photographer

These days, appearing on national television is about as common for Wayne Ellington as tossing in a layup during warm-ups. If his North Carolina Tar Heels are playing ball, TV cameras are part of the package.

But at the time . . .

Ellington figures he could probably go to the exact spot on the floor where he made the winning jump shot for Episcopal Academy in 2006 in a city showdown game against Neumann-Goretti. Anybody who was at the Palestra that January night remembers the spot, too.

"I knew it was going in as soon as it left my fingers," Ellington said afterward. "It felt great, man."

When top-ranked North Carolina comes to the Palestra tomorrow night to face the Penn Quakers on ESPN2, Ellington will play there for the first time since his Episcopal days. He should try to take at least one shot from that spot - foul line extended, on the Center City side of the building - just for old times' sake.

In his 40-odd years of coaching high school and college ball, Episcopal coach Dan Dougherty said last week, he puts that shot in his top three moments. Elite company, since one of his other big ones is when Villanova beat Western Kentucky in the Final Four when Dougherty was an assistant coach in 1971 - and the third one was a game-winning shot made by Dougherty's own son.

The Palestra shot was made even more memorable since Ellington hadn't made many that night, and the game was on ESPN2, and, most important, Ellington had missed three free throws in the last minute.

"What pressure," Dougherty said.

Jeremy Treatman, the promoter of that game, said last week: "I don't like to let my personal feelings get involved when I'm putting together a game. But I felt real bad for him when he missed the free throws. But the guy demanded the ball [in the last seconds]. It just reminded me of Kobe - in terms of how he was determined to make up for it."

Interestingly, Ellington has just as vivid memories of Episcopal's next Palestra game, two weeks later against national powerhouse Oak Hill Academy.

"I just remember them holding the ball," Ellington said in a telephone interview Friday. "I was furious about that."

Oak Hill's star player was point guard Ty Lawson, now Ellington's point guard at UNC. That game has come up more than once in Chapel Hill.

You guys had to hold the ball to beat us.

I was in foul trouble.

You had seven Division I players.

Tar Heels coach Roy Williams was at the Palestra that night. According to Dougherty, it was that game that really led to tomorrow night's game. Dougherty, Williams, and Fran Dunphy, Penn's coach at the time, got to talking that night after the game. The two college coaches talked about playing home-and-home, which came to fruition.

Since Penn is so young this season, the expectation is that tomorrow will mainly be an exhibition of Tar Heels talents. Ellington obviously is one of the brightest lights. He was UNC's designated jump shooter last season and averaged 11.7 points a game. Of course, sometimes it's the shots you miss that get remembered, like the one Ellington missed against Georgetown in last season's NCAA tournament. This season, though, his scoring average is up to 18 ppg., in 29.9 minutes a game.

"I worked in the off-season, trying to be more of a scorer," Ellington said, adding that he was looking to shed the image people had of him last season and was determined to get to the foul line more. He also spent a lot more time in the weight room.

"As a high school player, he went to the hoop, and it was evidenced by the number of foul shots," Dougherty said. "Last year, it looked like he was a little hesitant."

So far this season, Ellington has taken at least four free throws in four of UNC's seven games, after averaging fewer than two foul shots a game as a freshman. His free-throw percentage is 88.9, up from 83.6 last season. He's been just as strong from beyond the three-point stripe, making 18 of 36 so far, after hitting 37.1 percent last season.

One common denominator from his Episcopal days is the expectations - now higher than ever. After the Tar Heels beat Ohio State last week, Williams said: "Wayne Ellington made a big three - everybody made so much of him missing the shot against Georgetown last year, and he's got to live with that, but he made a bunch of shots to get us to Georgetown last year, too. He made a big one for us the other night against BYU. And [Ohio State] cut it to six, and the shot clock was winding down, and he makes a big three for us again."

Ellington doesn't shy away from the spotlight. His favorite "non-basketball" athlete: Terrell Owens. Not because of T.O.'s off-the-field antics, Ellington said. He just takes over games.

"He's a great athlete even though he has a lot of baggage," Ellington said.

That kind of talk may not go over around here, but in Chapel Hill, nobody minds Ellington's talking about taking a bigger role. A headline in a recent Chapel Hill News story read: "The blooming of Wayne Ellington."

In that story, Williams talked about how he expects people to see a more confident and relaxed Ellington all year.

Of course, Dougherty saw that player quite a bit at Episcopal, not just for one moment at the Palestra.

"Players who get to that level, they realize they are good players," Dougherty said. "And good players are going to miss shots and make shots."