Bench giving UNC a bigger boost

After North Carolina guard P.J. Hairston's game-tying 3-pointer missed off the back of the rim Sunday, the freshman shook his head in disappointment.

It was a frustrating way to lose the ACC tournament, especially after fighting back from a double-digit deficit against Florida State. But the fact that Hairston was on the court in the final seconds, one of three options to take the final shot despite struggling with his accuracy the entire league season, is an example of a positive that came out of UNC’s trip to Atlanta’s Philips Arena.

“I think this weekend really meant a lot for our bench,” Hairston said.

And now the bench could mean a lot for the Tar Heels in the NCAA tournament, where they will open as a No. 1 seed in Greensboro, N.C., on Friday.

With starting forward John Henson sidelined for most of the ACC tournament because of a sprained left wrist (he hurt it trying to break a fall in the first half of Friday’s quarterfinals), UNC’s reserves had to play more and play better. After an inconsistent regular season, they did so, with a different bench member serving as a key contributor each game:

  • After Henson got hurt against Maryland on Friday, freshman forward James Michael McAdoo came off the bench to tie a career high with 14 points, plus eight rebounds, in the 85-69 victory. It continued a late-season pattern of being more aggressive and focused.

  • During Saturday’s down-to-the-wire victory over NC State in the semifinals, senior reserve Justin Watts played hero. The 6-foot-5 do-it-all guy played four positions -- ranging from point guard to power forward -- and made a hustling steal in the closing seconds to help seal the Tar Heels’ 13th straight victory over their rivals.

  • And then there was Sunday, when Hairston -- 8-for-50 on 3-pointers in his previous 17 games --swished three in a less than a three-minute span, spurring UNC’s comeback. Despite his game-tying miss, he scored in double figures for the first time since New Year’s Day.

“We definitely saw a lot of growth from our team in this tournament -- our depth, especially,’’ said starting small forward Harrison Barnes. “James stepping up, P.J. stepping up and contributing, Justin Watts, a thousand watts, the man of many faces, playing so many roles. … And that’s only going to help us, especially when John gets back.”

Coach Roy Williams said Sunday that he expects Henson, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, to be OK for the NCAA tournament. But the bench now is key, considering it hadn’t had a consistent impact since shooting guard Dexter Strickland suffered a season-ending knee injury in January, and sophomore Reggie Bullock moved into the starting lineup, making for a shorter rotation.

“Early in the season, I thought our bench was giving us some great things,’’ Williams said. “Then we went through a lull, where I didn’t think we were getting much from the bench, but I think they did give us some moments out there this weekend. We expect John will be fine next weekend ... if we can get him back out there, and keep James Michael playing and being fresh and rebounding the ball, and P.J. finally making some shots and JWatts doing the things he does, that helps us, to say the least.”

Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.