CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina sophomore P.J. Hairston says his team hasn’t talked much about the NCAA tournament or its chances of getting there.
Thanks to the 6-foot-5 shooting guard/power forward -- and coach Roy Williams’ decision to keep him in the starting lineup -- maybe, just maybe, the Tar Heels won’t have any anxiety on Selection Sunday.
Beating Virginia -- another team considered on the postseason bubble -- 93-81 at the Smith Center on Saturday was key to UNC rallying from back-to-back road losses last week and strengthening its NCAA résumé with less than a month left in the regular season.
But it was how the Tar Heels did it -- going small with Hairston starting at the 4 for the second straight game and getting a career-high 29 points from him -- that might be most important. The change to the starting lineup has seemingly renewed the Tar Heels’ energy. And pace. And ability to score. And confidence.
“It’s a lot more fun," said point guard Marcus Paige, who had 17 points and three assists in the win. “Everything is easier for us right now because of the way P.J.’s been playing -- because of the lanes Dexter [Strickland] has to attack, the lanes I have to attack, the space that James Michael [McAdoo] has to operate with.”
Indeed, everything seemed more fluid with Hairston running the floor, defending and making shot after shot. Although the Tar Heels (17-8, 7-5 ACC) fell behind by as many as 10 points early, it was Hairston who helped shoot them back, recording back-to-back 3s late in the first half to give the Tar Heels a three-point lead.
In the second half, with Virginia (18-7, 8-4) winger Joe Harris (career-high 27 points) trying to keep his team in the game with a shooting binge of his own, Hairston kept countering.
When Harris made a 3-pointer with 14:14 left to cut UNC’s lead to five, Hairston responded with a 3.
A Hairston 3-pointer with 5:41 left gave the Tar Heels their largest lead of the game at 83-65. And when Harris cut his team’s deficit to nine points on a three-point play two minutes later, Hairston hit two free throws to push the cushion back to double figures for good.
“He’s been on a tear," said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, whose defensive-minded team gave up the most points in a first half (40) and a game (93) this season.
Been? Still is.
The only reason Hairston didn’t score 30-plus was because he opted to pass up a 3 with about a minute left.
“I had a wide-open shot in the corner, and I looked at Coach [Williams] and pump-faked it," said Hairston, who shot 8-for-14 for the game. “I really wanted to shoot it, but I said, ‘I’m not going to be like that’ [with such a big lead]. I just dribbled it out and kind of laughed at Coach.
“But I did think every shot I took in the second half was going to go in.”
Williams, who said he had pondered switching to a smaller opening lineup four or five games ago, wouldn’t expand Saturday on why he finally opted to do it prior to Wednesday’s loss at Duke, where Hairston tied his then-career high with 23 points.
“Sometimes you guys don’t have to know everything," Williams said. “Maybe they made Coach mad, wore the wrong color shoe, smiled at the wrong person. I have reasons, and those reasons will stay with me.”
But the reason he can stick with it -- switching 6-9 freshman Desmond Hubert for a guy four inches shorter -- is Hairston’s ability to rebound.
He pulled down eight at Duke on Wednesday and seven against the Cavs. UNC outrebounded Virginia 32-21 for the game.
“That was huge for us today," Williams said. “One time James Michael shot the ball from the baseline and we had nobody to get to the boards, and I said, ‘Guys, you small guys that like this small lineup. I cannot do that if you guys aren’t getting to the boards when James Michael shoots.' We can’t tell him not to shoot. He can’t be our only rebounder.
“So the rebounding part, I think, is the most crucial part of the game.”
And regarding the new starting lineup, which Williams plans to keep: “I don’t know. If you score 29 points, that’s not a very good reason to keep you in the game," he said sarcastically.
He added: “We’re still not playing anywhere close to how I want to run. But we’re playing harder. … It gives us better spacing, more guys who can score, better opportunities to drive.”
And thus, win.
Which the Tar Heels need to keep doing if they want to avoid worrying -- or talking, or getting asked -- about an NCAA bid.