North Carolina reserve P.J. Hairston was the Tar Heels’ leading scorer in their loss to rival NC State on Saturday, scoring 12 of his 19 points in the final seven minutes -- when they cut a once-28-point deficit to as little as five.
The 6-5 sophomore has not always been consistent offensively, following a 15-point game against then-ranked UNLV with two single digit outings, and a career-best 23 at Florida State with a 1-for-8 performance the next time out. And although his defense has improved, even he’ll tell you it needs to get better.
But during many stretches this season, playing both wing and power forward, he’s been the the best player on the court -- and key for a team that sometimes struggles to find points.
So why, for the second straight game, did he play only 17 minutes?
During Monday's ACC conference call, coach Roy Williams mentioned early foul trouble during Wednesday’s win against Georgia Tech, when Hairston scored 15 points in 17 minutes. Williams also cited freshman J.P. Tokoto, who “has played probably his best two games. So it’s not just P.J.’s right to be out there on the floor.”
But the thing that benched Hairston for the longest spurt against the Wolfpack -- about eight minutes or so in the second half -- was a lack of aggressiveness on one particular play.
“Saturday I got so mad at him when he’s going after a loose ball, and a North Carolina State player runs from behind him and dives for the loose ball when P.J.’s trying to pick it up, and I can’t stomach those kinds of things," Williams said. “...There’s no question, that’s the reason he sat out for a long time Saturday.”
Hairston had been averaging 26.6 minutes in the five games previous to his last two. And when asked recently about possibly moving Hairston into the starting lineup, Williams said at that point, “I think he’s more valuable coming off the bench.”
Considering the way the Tar Heels played against the Wolfpack, it will be interesting to see whether Williams -- not known for liking to make changes to his starting lineup -- opts to shake things up, beginning with Tuesday night’s game at Boston College.
And whether, at the very least, Hairston’s minutes eke back up.
After all, Dexter Strickland and Marcus Paige, who make up UNC’s starting backcourt, are shooting 29.2 percent and 24.4 percent, respectively, in conference play. And the Tar Heels' reserves, led by Hairston, out-scored the starting five 47-36 in the loss to the Wolfpack.