Fowler: Hairston is tough when the Tar Heels need him

sfowler@charlotteobserver.comMarch 16, 2013 

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UNC's P.J. Hairston (15) has his hand heavily wrapped as he waits to enter the playing floor for the Tar Heels game against Maryland in their ACC Tournament semi-final game on Saturday March 16, 2013 at the Greensboro Coliseum in Greensboro, N.C. Hairston injured his hand last night and received several stitches.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— North Carolina’s P.J. Hairston isn’t your prototypical tough player. He is prone to over-dramatize injuries, to stay on the floor an extra beat or two.

His teammates tease him about this.

“With P.J., you’ve sometimes got to double-check that he’s not adding a little bit of fluff to it,” point guard Marcus Paige said with a laugh.

But Hairston was genuinely tough on Saturday when the Tar Heels needed it, playing 36 minutes in a 79-76 win against Maryland in the ACC tournament semifinals. Hairston, a sophomore from Greensboro, got eight stitches in his left (non-shooting) hand late Friday night after tearing the webbing between two of his fingers, but he wrapped it up like he was an offensive lineman and played.

Hairston scored 13 points, had four rebounds, made a 3-pointer to open the scoring for North Carolina and handled the ball well enough to be effective. All that was huge for the Tar Heels, who otherwise likely would have reverted to their big lineup when the small one with Hairston as a centerpiece had worked so well.

Hairston is naturally funny, and his gift for the dramatic extended into Saturday’s postgame news conference.

When asked how the injury felt Friday night, Hairston said: “Last night, I thought I was going to die. I was in the training room with my mom holding my hand. They told me, ‘OK, we’re going to clean it out and stitch on it.’ And as soon as the alcohol and the soap hit my hand I kind of screamed for my life.”

It appeared he didn’t much want to dribble with that injured left hand, but then again Hairston is more of a “one-dribble-and-shoot” kind of guy anyway.

That Hairston’s injury wasn’t serious was the best sign the Tar Heels could get this weekend.

North Carolina has had a troubling string of late-season injuries the past few years – John Henson, Ty Lawson, Kendall Marshall – and this team really can’t afford another one.

It has finally established some chemistry. Paige is finding himself – his two late-game baskets were enormous. When Hairston is in the lineup, all benefit.

It was odd late in the game to see Hairston pass up a couple of shots. When asked if he had ever stopped shooting before in his life, Hairston said: “Uh… no.”

So Hairston went against type in a couple of different ways Saturday, helping North Carolina get to 24-9. The auxiliary benefit to the ACC tournament was big, too – a Miami-Maryland final would have had yawning gaps of empty seats.

Instead, even though it will be overshadowed in a matter of hours by the announcement of the NCAA tournament bracket, Sunday’s Miami-North Carolina final should be compelling.

Hairston’s presence in the game almost guarantees that.

Fowler: 704-358-5140 Twitter: @scott_fowler

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