Hairston working to find his rhythm, again

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – North Carolina sophomore P.J. Hairston said he tried not to show too much emotion when he hit two 3-pointers within a 75-second span Friday night, helping to jump-start a 23-0 run that solidified the Tar Heels’ 81-54 exhibition win over Shaw.

But it was hard for him -- and perhaps a few teammates, too -- not to grin.

“That’s P.J.,’’ junior wing Reggie Bullock said. “That’s what he can do.”

That’s what UNC needs him to do more consistently this season.

After some early freshman success in 2011-12 that saw the sharpshooter hit 5-of-8 3s against South Carolina, then go 3-for-5 from long range against UNLV and 3-for-4 at Kentucky, the 6-foot-5 shooting guard struggled mightily the second half of his freshman year with both his accuracy and his confidence.

After a 4-for-9 3-point performance against Monmouth last Jan. 1, Hairston hit more than one 3-pointer only three times the rest of the season (2-for-5 against Boston College, 2-for-4 against Georgia Tech, 3-for-7 vs. Florida State in the ACC tournament). In all, he was only 8-for-50 from long distance during ACC play.

In retrospect, Hairston said, he would let himself get “rattled” if he didn’t connect early, impacting his ability to hit shots later on, as well. So over the summer, he not only worked on his shooting -- but his defense, ballhandling, rebounding and patience. And when he missed all four of his shots (including two 3-pointers) in Friday’s first half, he was sure he could help his team in other ways.

“The first few shots, they felt good, but they didn’t go in,’’ he said. “And that’s when I decided I had to do more things defensively. And that’s what coach said, and he left me out there longer because I was doing some good things defensively.”

Hairston said knew he just had to keep playing, just had to be poised: “Last year, as a freshman, I just kept getting frustrated when the shots wouldn’t fall. But I’ve just matured, and I’ve learned that the shots will come if I keep playing defense.”

In the end, the Tar Heels made only 3 of their 16 3-point attempts against the Division II Bears. That was bit of an eyebrow-raiser considering outside shooting is projected (and needs) to be a strength this season, especially with so many young players in the post and veterans on the wing.

But Hairston finished 2-for-5 from 3-point land, and 3-for-8 overall. It was a hopeful individual start after so many grimace-inducing outings last season.

“It felt real good,’’ Hairston said of his scoring flurry. “I was trying not to show any emotion; I was playing good defense, and I just wanted to concentrate on getting back on the floor and play good defense. It felt good, though, knowing my shot was falling and getting back into a rhythm.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.