GREENSBORO — More than once during the past three months, North Carolina coach Roy Williams has questioned his teams toughness and challenged his players manhood, all in the name of hoping they might one day be resilient enough to handle the tensest of situations those like the ones the Tar Heels experienced on Saturday.
UNCs 79-76 victory against Maryland in the ACC tournament semifinals at the Greensboro Coliseum might have represented the Heels grittiest performance of the season, and it was one, finally, that even caused Williams to celebrate his players fortitude.
In the beginning, P.J. Hairston, UNCs sophomore guard, personified the Tar Heels ability to withstand. Hairston suffered a laceration on his left hand on Friday night during UNCs victory against Florida State. The cut was so deep it required eight stitches, and his status for Saturday was in doubt.
But, he said on Saturday, In my head, I knew I was going to play.
And so he did, with his left hand heavily taped and bandaged. At times during the first half, Hairston gave UNC (24-9) its only offense. Nine of his 13 points came during the first 20 minutes.
Hes been a pansy most of the time Ive known him, Williams said, joking. But today he was one tough sucker.
He could have been talking about his team as a whole. For long stretches this season, the Tar Heels didnt play with the toughness Williams wanted, or the urgency. They displayed both in the second half on Saturday, though, and withstood Marylands continuous charges.
UNC led by as many as 13 with about 11 minutes to play. But the Terrapins (22-12) whittled their deficit to one point with about three minutes remaining.
Then Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels freshman point guard, made a momentum-swinging jump shot, and he made another a short runner on the baseline with about one minute to play. The second one came after the Terrapins had cut UNCs lead back down to three.
Huge, Dexter Strickland, the senior guard, said of those two shots Paige made.
Trailing by three points with about 20 seconds left, Maryland had a chance to tie the game. But after a timeout with 11 seconds to play, Logan Aronhalt, the Terrapins senior guard, rushed a long 3-pointer that wasnt close.
UNC ran down the clock from there and celebrated a victory that might have been a defeat months ago, before the Tar Heels learned to play with the kind resiliency that Williams appreciates.
After UNC built that 13-point lead, Maryland kept cutting into its deficit, kept coming back. The Heels, led by 15 points each from Strickland and Reggie Bullock, never relinquished.
We just knew that we had to pull through, Bullock said. We dug ourselves in this hole. We were up 12, 10, basically the whole game. We just had to show that we were mentally tough coming down the stretch to be able to get a stop.
For the third consecutive season, UNC advanced to the ACC tournament championship game, where Sunday it will play against Miami. The Hurricanes dealt the Tar Heels their most crushing loss of the season a 26-point defeat in Coral Gables that called into question the Heels direction and character.
It was really hard, just seeing them throwing (an alley-oop) off the backboard and celebrating and stuff like that, Leslie McDonald, the Heels junior guard, said on Saturday. No player wants to see that we always had that picture in our mind, and now we get a chance to go back and play them again.
UNCs 26-point loss at Miami was embarrassing and humiliating, but it also led to change. It was inside a dejected locker room after that game when Williams first began to think that going to a smaller, four-guard starting lineup might give his team its best chance to be successful.
The strategy has worked. Since going small, the Tar Heels are undefeated against teams other than Duke.
"That was a point in the season where they beat us pretty badly, Paige said of the defeat at Miami. And we had to decide are we going to fold as a team, or are we going to come together, try to get better.
If Hairston personified his teams toughness early on Saturday, it was Paige who did it late. All eight of Paiges points came in the second half, and his final five points came after he returned to the game, carrying four fouls, with less than four minutes to play.
Weve seen him grow up, James Michael McAdoo, UNCs sophomore forward, said of Paige.
And in some ways, the same could be said of the Tar Heels, who will play Miami for the third time this season. In the first of those meetings, back in January in the Smith Center, the Hurricanes took advantage of UNCs defensive lapses during their 68-59 victory.
The second time, in Coral Gables, the game was so lopsided late that Miami attempted to turn it into a highlight show with the alley-oop off the backcourt that still resonates in the mind of McDonald and his teammates.
The way I felt during the game is that we had no control over anything, Williams said.
After that loss, Williams met with his assistant coaches. They spoke for a while, brainstormed ideas and eventually settled on the one that proved to save the Tar Heels season.
The players, meanwhile, questioned things, too.
We knew we had to definitely change things, and things couldnt keep going the way they were, McAdoo said. Because they werent going well. And that loss hurt. The biggest thing was we didnt even show up to compete. They just kind of hit us in the mouth, and we just took it.
So now comes a rematch, for the league championship, on the day after UNC perhaps played with more toughness than it has all season - toughness it acquired, in part, because of the humiliation it experienced last month in South Florida.
--Dez Wells, a Raleigh native and Maryland sophomore guard, scored a career-high 30 points to lead the Terrapins to a surprising victory against Duke on Friday night. Against North Carolina, though, Wells had a far more difficult time getting going. Wells scored just four first-half points and finished with 15 overall. Reggie Bullock, UNCs junior guard, was most responsible for defending Wells. Coach believed in me, being able to help contain him and slow him down, make things tough on him It was a defensive assignment game today for me. Hed been killing it in the tournament. Wells penetrated effectively against the Blue Devils, but UNC did an effective job of limiting his penetration and forcing him to take jump shots. He made six of his 15 attempts from the field.
--One of the main reasons why Maryland continued to come back during the second half was because of its rebounding. The Terrapins have been among the best rebounding teams in the country, but they didnt often show it when they lost against UNC earlier this month. Maryland, though, showed it on Saturday. The Terrapins outscored UNC 24-4 in points off of offensive rebounds. Both Alex Len, the Terps 7-foot-1 center, and Charles Mitchell had three offensive rebounds apiece for Maryland.
--P.J. Hairston, UNCs sophomore guard, persevered through the left hand injury he suffered on Friday. Hairston played with his middle and ring fingers taped together, but he didnt seem to have any problems with catching or passing. He made just three of his 10 attempts from the field, though. Hairston said his hand felt fine during the game. Afterward, though? Right now, yes it does hurt, he said.
Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter