Why UNC's Hairston played so little against Pack

acarter@newsobserver.comJanuary 29, 2013 

UNC's P.J. Hairston (15) brings the ball around N.C. State's T.J. Warren (24) during the first half of N.C. State's game against UNC Saturday, January 26, 2013, at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C.

ETHAN HYMAN — ehyman@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— P.J. Hairston, North Carolina’s sophomore guard, entered his team’s game against N.C. State on Saturday night with about 14 minutes to play in the first half. Twenty-two seconds after he stepped onto the court, he made a long 3-pointer from near the top of the key.

It was a fitting beginning for Hairston, who made five 3-pointers and led the Tar Heels with 19 points. Even so, his scoring opportunities were limited. He played just 17 minutes on Saturday, and watched the majority of his team’s 91-83 defeat from the bench.

After that disappointing defeat, the Tar Heels on Monday departed for Massachusetts, where they will play Boston College tonight. UNC coach Roy Williams hopes the quick turnaround helps his team overcome the loss against the Wolfpack, and he’s also hoping for more consistency and hustle from Hairston.

When Hairston is shooting well from the outside, he is among the Heels’ most valuable offensive players. He is the Heels’ third leading scorer (12.3 points per game), and is third in the ACC in points per 40 minutes.

Yet his offensive production alone wasn’t enough to keep him on the court Saturday, when Williams became frustrated at one point that an N.C. State player outfought Hairston for a loose ball.

“Saturday, I got so mad at him when he was going after a loose ball and the North Carolina State player runs from behind and then dives for the loose ball when P.J. is trying to pick it up,” Williams said. “And I just can’t stomach those kind of things.”

Williams said he continues to give “guys chances,” even when he doesn’t like their hustle.

“But there is no question that that’s the reason he sat out for a long time Saturday,” Williams said of Hairston.

Still, Hairston’s absence for long stretches was puzzling given the Tar Heels’ challenging set of circumstances Saturday. For one, they fell behind early, and eventually needed to shoot well from the perimeter to climb back into the game.

In addition, UNC’s starting backcourt duo of Marcus Paige and Dexter Strickland struggled. They combined to make just four of their 18 attempts from the field. Paige missed his first eight shots and finished with seven points in 29 minutes. Strickland had six points in 26 minutes.

Hairston, meanwhile, played only seven minutes during the second half. But he made the most of them and scored 12 of his 19 points during those seven minutes.

UNC’s game at N.C. State was the second consecutive in which Hairston played just 17 minutes. He averages about 20 minutes per game, and before the Heels’ victory last week against Georgia Tech, Hairston hadn’t played less than 25 minutes in UNC’s previous three games.

Williams on Monday noted that early foul trouble limited Hairston’s minutes against Georgia Tech.

“That was part of it,” Williams said. “The other thing, if you go back the last two games, J.P. Tokoto has played probably his best two games. And so it’s not just P.J.’s right to be out there on the floor.”

Tokoto, the freshman forward, has averaged nine points in UNC’s past two games. Hairston’s contributions in the second half Saturday, though, were instrumental to the Tar Heels’ comeback attempt. Four of his 3s came in the second half, and those helped UNC cut a 28-point deficit to five with about 30 seconds to play.

Afterward, though, Hairston acknowledged that he and his teammates didn’t play with a sense of urgency. One play in particular irked Williams so much that Hairston remained on the bench throughout much of the second half.

“We tried to fight hard at the wrong time,” Hairston said Saturday.

Though Williams said Saturday that he was growing tired of learning experiences, the Tar Heels left their loss against N.C. State hoping to prove they had learned something from their slow start. Now, on the road again, they’ll have a chance to show whether they did, or whether lapses like the one that led to Hairston’s benching will persist.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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