CHAPEL Hill — Two days after one of the worst losses of Roy Williams head coaching tenure at North Carolina, P.J. Hairston walked into the Smith Center, down to the Tar Heels locker room and saw his name staring back at him in UNCs starting five.
I walked into practice one day and I was on the practice plan, starting at (power forward), Hairston, UNCs sophomore guard, said on Saturday, after UNCs 93-81 victory against Virginia. And I was like, Oh. OK. I was surprised, but I was ready at the same time.
Hairston proved he was ready during the Tar Heels closer-than-expected defeat at Duke, where he led the Tar Heels with 23 points. He followed that performance with a career-high 29 on Saturday at the Smith Center, where he made six of his 12 3-point attempts while a joyous crowd sometimes serenaded him with chants of his name.
After his teams victory on Saturday, Williams declined to say when he decided, for good, to move Hairston into the starting lineup. He had considered the idea four or five games ago, he said on Wednesday after the defeat at Duke, but on Saturday Williams offered no more details about why he changed Hairstons role.
Sometimes you guys dont have to know everything, Williams said. I have my reasons and those reasons will stay with me.
Williams was more illuminating when asked if Hairston would remain a starter, and if the Tar Heels (17-8, 7-5 ACC) would continue to utilize a four-guard starting lineup with only one forward.
I dont know, Williams said in a sarcastic tone. If you score 29 points, thats not a very good reason to keep you in the game.
Whether Williams ever shares the back story of making Hairston a starter remains to be seen. The benefits of his decision, though, have become obvious enough after two games.
Like at Duke on Wednesday, UNC against Virginia (18-7, 8-4) played with greater energy and urgency than it has most of the season. It appeared to play faster, too, and the Tar Heels smaller lineup allowed for better spacing, and more driving lanes.
Both the Tar Heels and Cavaliers, led on Saturday by 29 points from guard Joe Harris, were competing to strengthen their NCAA tournament resumes. UNCs victory was meaningful on Saturday, but could be more so on NCAA tournament selection Sunday in March.
I told the guys, and me and Reggie (Bullock) also told the guys, that we have to win this game this is a mandatory win, said Dexter Strickland, UNCs senior guard who finished with 12 points and six assists.
Strickland has been one of the main benefactors of Hairstons ascension into a starting role. Strickland during the past two games has played like he did last year, before a season-ending knee injury.
With more space to drive, Strickland has been a better penetrator. He has taken advantage of open driving lanes.
It relieves pressure off of everybody, Strickland said of Hairstons presence. Just his ability to shoot, get to the rack and get those rebounds. That gives us the opportunity to run even faster on offense. Its helping us out a lot.
Hairstons shooting helped UNC overcome a slow start on Saturday. Virginia led the Heels by as many as 10 points during the first half, before Hairston began shooting well from the perimeter.
He made four of his six 3s during the first half, and two of them gave UNC brief leads before the Cavaliers Jontel Evans made a running 30-footer just before halftime to tie the game at 40. Williams said at halftime he urged his players to seize momentum at the start of the second half, and they did.
UNC scored the first eight points of the second half, and Virginia never cut its deficit to less than five. Eventually, the Heels, who with about 15 minutes to play had scored more points than the 52 they scored in a loss at Virginia in early January, led by as many as 18 points.
Its a good feeling right now, Williams said. We needed to have a good feeling in that locker room after playing at Miami, at Duke the last two (games).
As painful as the 26-point loss at Miami was for UNC, it represented a turning point. Hairston entered the starting lineup early the next week, and the Tar Heels confidence in that lineup grew even after the defeat at Duke.
Weve got five scorers out there with a scoring mentality that can score the ball, Bullock, UNCs junior guard, said of how the Tar Heels are a different team with Hairston starting. It helps stretch the floor (and) takes a lot of pressure off of (James Michael McAdoo) down low.
Virginia, an aggressive defensive team that prefers a slow pace on offense, hadnt allowed more than 69 points this season. UNC, which shot 49.2 percent and made 13 of its 28 3-point attempts, had that many on Saturday with about nine minutes to play.
UNC played its 25th game on Saturday but, afterward, players spoke as if this were a new season. A smaller, faster lineup had given them hope that maybe this is a new beginning.
Its fun now, Hairston said. I mean, Im not saying we werent having fun before. But we werent winning like we wanted to win. Now that were having fun with this lineup, we can really take it far.