Tar Heels’ Hairston finally finds his touch

acarter@newsobserver.comMarch 23, 2013 


UNC's P.J. Hairston (15) puts up a shot against Villanova's James Bell (32) during the second half of their NCAA tournament second round game on Friday March 21, 2013 at the Sprint Arena in Kansas City, Missouri.

ROBERT WILLETT — rwillett@newsobserver.com

— The thought sounds crazy now but there was a time not that long ago when P.J. Hairston didn’t think he was just a bad shooter, but the worst shooter in all of college basketball. That’s how low his confidence was 11 months ago, after a disappointing end to his disappointing freshman season.

“Last year I thought I was the worst shooter in the country,” the North Carolina sophomore guard said on Saturday after the Tar Heels practiced for their game Sunday against Kansas in the third round of the NCAA tournament. “Kind of towards the end of the year, after the season, I joked with Reggie (Bullock) about it, saying I didn’t hit a shot from December to March.”

The prolonged shooting slump that Hairston endured a season ago was never quite that bad. But it was close.

In one 16-game stretch during his freshman season, from Jan. 10 through March 10, Hairston made only seven of his 50 3-point attempts. He never made more than two 3-pointers in any of those 16 games, and 10 times he failed to make a single one.

He briefly broke out of the slump and made three 3s against Florida State in the 2012 ACC tournament championship game, but then Hairston settled back into the doldrums during the NCAA tournament. During UNC’s four tournament games last season, he missed 11 of his 13 3-pointers.

Those problems seem like a distant memory now, given Hairston’s success.

Since becoming a permanent fixture in the Tar Heels’ starting lineup before their Feb. 13 loss at Duke, Hairston has averaged 18.5 points per game. He has been at his best from behind the 3-point line, where he has made 40.8 percent of his attempts in the 12 games since becoming a permanent starter.

Hairston’s improbable ascension – from a struggling, confidence-starved freshman a season ago, to a key reserve in the first half of this season, to his role now – is the primary reason that UNC, seeded eighth in the South Region, is meeting top-seeded Kansas with a chance to advance to the Sweet 16.

“I’m happy for him,” sophomore forward James Michael McAdoo said on Saturday of Hairston’s improvement. “If anyone deserves it, he does. Especially last year, (with) the shooting woes he went through.”

Hairston is among the most jovial of his teammates and his roommate, junior guard Leslie McDonald, described Hairston on Saturday as “very funny – very humorous. Very dry sense of humor.” Hairston used some of that humor to handle his struggles last year, but he also became more serious after the season ended.

Hairston acknowledged earlier this season that he had difficulty managing distractions during his freshman season. He enjoyed his year of college life. His priorities began to change, though, last spring and summer.

“I was always a person in his ear telling him to get multiple shots up, because it’s all about repetition shooting the ball,” said Bullock, UNC’s junior guard. “And I just told him that I’ve been in your position. I shot very poorly from the floor my first year at Carolina.”

Bullock and Hairston are best friends, two players with similar games and similar demeanors. Bullock has been UNC’s best and most consistent perimeter shooter this season, and he has become even more potent since Hairston’s role expanded in mid-February.

Bullock has made three 3-pointers in each of UNC’s past three games. During the same stretch, Hairston has made at least four 3-pointers in every game.

“It’s just special to have a brother like that on the court, to be able to shine with you,” Bullock said. “…We just feed off each other so much during the game. It’s very hard for teams to guard both of us when we’re both shooting.”

Hairston’s improvement this season coincided with the arrival of Hubert Davis, who became an assistant coach after Jerod Haase departed Roy Williams’ staff to become the head coach at UAB. Davis played at UNC from 1988 through 1992 and then spent 12 seasons in the NBA, where he became one of the league’s best 3-point shooters.

After Davis arrived in Chapel Hill, he and Hairston bonded quickly.

“When I started shooting with Coach Davis, I feel like my confidence just got higher,” Hairston said. “And he helped me on not kicking my leg out on my shot and just going straight up and down.”

The leg-kick issue is a mechanical flaw that has hindered Hairston, though not as much lately. Outside of that, Davis said, Hairston’s mechanics were sound.

When he arrived, Davis only had a vague notion of how much Hairston struggled during his freshman year. Davis looked at UNC’s statistics from last season and learned that Hairston shot 27.3 percent on 3-pointers. The numbers surprised Davis.

“I saw his percentages and it was shocking because he’s such a great shooter,” he said.

Hairston has been this season, at least. Davis doesn’t attribute Hairston’s recent success to “any magic thing.” The shots are falling now, he said, simply because Hairston has adapted better practice habits, and because he dedicated himself to improving.

Asked what most impresses him about Hairston’s shooting ability, Davis didn’t talk on Saturday about mechanics or shot selection or ball rotation. He talked about things few people see, like Hairston shooting alone in a gym.

“He’s always getting up extra shots before and after practice,” Davis said. “And his preparation is fantastic. So it’s not a surprise that he’s having success on the floor, because his preparation has been really good this year.”

Just 11 months ago, Hairston thought he was the worst shooter in the country. Now he’s the primary reason why the Tar Heels are one game away from advancing to the Sweet 16 for the 32nd time in school history.

Carter: 919-829-8944 Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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