CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- With about 2 seconds left at Cameron Indoor Stadium last month, newly installed North Carolina starter P.J. Hairston briefly cut through the roar of the crazy, celebrating crowd with a driving, rim-rattling jam.
The emphatic bucket, itself, didn’t mean anything to the final outcome of the rivalry game: Duke 73, UNC 68. But it was a sign -- and a statement -- of what was to come.
“I wanted to show that we weren’t going to stop being aggressive, we weren’t going to stop trying,” the sophomore said recently. “And we haven’t.”
Indeed, since that game, UNC’s first with a four-guard starting lineup, the Tar Heels have reeled off six straight wins; secured a first-day bye in next week’s ACC tournament; seemingly played themselves off the NCAA tournament bubble; and are just a few votes short of being back in the AP top 25.
The change hasn’t always been seamless, but it has so far been successful.
In the rematch with No. 3 Duke at the Smith Center on Saturday, the Tar Heels are out to prove that their smaller lineup will be a big force to be reckoned with in the postseason.
“Even though we lost that first game [against the Blue Devils], I felt like that was a turning point for us,” senior Dexter Strickland said. “We saw what type of team we could be if we continued to play like that. ... And we have.”
MAKING THE CHANGE
When the 6-foot-5 Hairston was announced as part of the opening five instead of 6-9 sophomore Desmond Hubert on Feb. 13, it was somewhat of a surprise. Fans had been clamoring for the sophomore to start; he was, after all, the most productive player off the bench, and an offensive spark on a team whose starting five had lacked consistent scoring punch.
But coach Roy Williams -- trying to build freshman point guard Marcus Paige's experience, and keep his only scholarship senior, Strickland, confident at shooting guard -- was hesitant to make any switches to his starting backcourt. The Tar Heels had used smaller, four-guard lineups during some games. But Williams, whose offenses have always gone through the post, preferred to keep a traditional big man in the mix.
That is, until Feb. 9, when the Tar Heels were embarrassed by 26 points at Miami.
After watching his team yet again fall behind early; get only 10 points out of its center-by-committee trio of Hubert, Brice Johnson and Joel James; and show a lack of cohesiveness, the frustrated Hall of Famer knew something had to change. So he gathered his assistants in the bowels of BankUnited Center and asked for their input on how to jump-start a season that seemed in danger of free-falling in the wrong direction.
“We were sitting in the locker room and I said, ‘Guys I’m going to do something,’” said Williams, whose squad also had previously trailed big in losses to Butler, at Indiana, at Texas and at NC State. “We talked about it at that time, that neither Marcus or Dexter were shooting a great percentage. Our fifth starter, one of the big guys, wasn’t giving us a lot offensively, and James Michael [McAdoo] wasn’t shooting the percentage we wanted him to either.”
The coaches traded ideas and were given the night to ponder. Then the following day, they met back in Chapel Hill and solidified the decision to move Hairston into the starting five for Hubert -- hoping a smaller lineup would result in a bigger offensive assault.
The players learned about it the next day, when the name of the wing-turned-power forward was written on a board in the locker room as part of the opening five.
“I’m not sure there really was that big of a reaction,” McAdoo said. “It was more like, ‘OK, let’s play.’”
The move was an experiment, Williams would say later, one that made his team instantly look more comfortable -- but took him out of his comfort zone. But even in the loss at Duke, he saw the potential when Hairston scored 23 and helped get the team off to a more energetic start.
And he saw results against Virginia and at Georgia Tech, both 12-point victories.
“I’m still uncomfortable with part of it, there’s no question,” Williams said of his lineup the following week, after those wins. “But I think it gives us the best chance to be successful.”
A CHANGE IN RESULTS
That success continued with wins against NC State, at Clemson, versus Florida State and at Maryland. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski called Hairston one of the best players in the ACC over the past few weeks, but it isn’t just the sophomore’s 17.6 PPG since he entered the starting lineup that has fed the streak -- but also what his presence does for the team as a whole.
Because defenses must guard another 3-point shooter, he has opened up more driving lanes for Paige and Strickland. McAdoo, too, has more room to move.
Rebounding has had to become more of a concern and an emphasis, but junior wing Reggie Bullock, in particular, has helped on that front, recording three double-doubles in his past four games. And Williams has credited Hubert, who has averaged about four minutes per game off the bench since the switch, with having a team-first attitude that has carried over to the rest of the squad.
The result is a faster, more confident, more offensive Tar Heels team that is averaging 10.1 more points per game since the switch. And a team that has taken on Hairston’s swagger.
“When you put those five guys on the court, they can play with anybody and they can score with anybody,” Krzyzewski said. “They’re very good -- they’re very good.”
In Saturday’s rematch with Duke (26-4, 13-4), the Tar Heels (22-8, 12-5) face an also-very-good Blue Devils team that has changed since last month’s game, too. Starting forward Ryan Kelly, out for two months with an injured foot, has returned with a flourish, averaging 27 points over his past two games. At 6-11 and 6-10, respectively, he and Mason Plumlee make for another tall test for the shorter Tar Heels.
But it’s a challenge UNC players say they’ve looked forward to since Hairston’s statement dunk at the end of the last matchup.
“Of course we wanted that game bad, and losing by, like, five [hurt],” Hairston said. “But now, we’re more team-oriented ... we’ve got this confidence now where we feel like we can’t be beat. Right now, we just have this intensity that we bring to the game, a different focus than what people have seen from the beginning of the season.”