GREENSBORO, N.C. – P.J. Hairston's hand hurt after North Carolina’s 79-76 ACC tournament semifinal victory over Maryland on Saturday. But the Tar Heels sophomore, who needed eight stitches Friday to close a bloody laceration between two fingers, said he would have hurt more if he didn’t play.
And so, frankly, might have his team.
The wing-turned-power forward wasn’t the Tar Heels’ highest scorer; both Reggie Bullock and Dexter Strickland finished two points ahead of him, with 15 apiece. And Hairston didn’t make the most noteworthy plays down the stretch, when the Terps cut a double-figures lead back to within upset distance. Those moments came from forward James Michael McAdoo, who converted two clutch free throws; point guard Marcus Paige, who scored a couple of key buckets; and Terrapins guard Logan Aronhalt, who opted to throw up long, desperation 3 that found nothing but air with time left on the clock.
Still, Hairston’s ability to start despite a heavily bandaged left hand -- and finish with 13 points and four rebounds -- allowed the Tar Heels (24-9) to stick with their four-guard starting lineup.
And to continue competing the way they’ve grown most comfortable.
“I think it was huge just for him to be able to be out there,’’ McAdoo, who finished with 13 points and eight rebounds, said of Hairston. “We didn’t know if he was going to be able to contribute, but just to have him out there on the floor gave our team a lot of confidence … because having him there is what we’ve grown used to.”
And been successful with. The Tar Heels now are 8-2 since coach Roy Williams opted to insert the 6-foot-5 Hairston for 6-11 Desmond Hubert, and no one really wanted to mess with that faster, more confident, better-shooting mojo, if possible.
“I wanted to help my team, and I wanted to make sure we won and advanced,’’ Hairston said.
There was some doubt, though, about how much help he could be after he left Friday’s win over Florida State with about four minutes left, blood dripping all over the court. Hairston sustained the cut between the middle and ring fingers on his non-shooting hand when a Seminole was trying to make a steal, and he didn’t immediately know the extent of his injury.
“When it happened, I didn’t know it happened,’’ Hairston said. “I was running back … and I wiped my face, and I happened to look at my hand, and I was dripping blood all over the floor. I’m like, ‘OK,’ and when I got to the bench, no one knew where the blood was coming from. But as soon as we wiped the blood off, I saw that it was split straight down the middle of my hand [between the fingers]. It was weird.”
And a little bit scary.
“Last night I thought I was going to die,’’ he said. “I was in the training room with my mom holding my hand. They told me, ‘OK, we’re going to clean it out and stitch on it,’ … and as soon as the alcohol and soap hit my hand I screamed for my life.”
Thus, Williams didn’t know if he was going to be able to play Hairston until just before the game, when the player was able to dribble, catch and pass without any problem. But even then, he told Hairston his playing time would be dependent on how effective he could be.
So the scorer hit his first 3-point try just 73 seconds into the game.
And he played 36 minutes.
“He was one tough sucker today,’’ Williams said. “I think the hand bothered him a little bit … he was 3-for-10, he had some good looks, but at the same time, I think what he helped us do out on the court was extremely important."
And will continue to be important Sunday, when the third-seeded Tar Heels face top seed Miami in the tournament championship game.
UNC lost to the Hurricanes twice during the regular season -- the second time, in mid-February, leading to Williams’ decision to make the switch to go smaller with his opening five. Since that move, the Tar Heels have become more cohesive than the crew that started ACC play 0-2.
And they say they were even more inspired Saturday, watching Hairston play well despite the stitches and cushioned bandage and post-game soreness.
“Right now it hurts pretty bad,” he said, “but I’ll be fine. On the court, when my adrenaline gets going, it feels like a regular hand.”