ATLANTA -- North Carolina freshman P.J. Hairston was sure his shot was going in.
He got a good look. It felt good coming off his hand. It had a good line.
And although he said it was “the worst feeling in the world” when his game-tying 3-point attempt thudded off the back of the rim -- securing Florida State’s 85-82 victory in the ACC tournament championship Sunday at Philips Arena -- it didn’t take him long to regain his confidence.
“I feel like my shot is back,” the freshman said in the locker room about a half-hour later, as the Seminoles were still celebrating on the court. “And I’m going to be very dangerous over the next couple of weeks.”
The Tar Heels hope so. If they can take any solace in having their nine-game winning streak broken, it’s in the fact that it was Hairston, who hadn’t scored in double-figures since New Year’s Day, who helped fuel their comeback.
Trailing by 16 points in the first half to the team that had embarrassed them by 33 points in January, and still down by nine points at halftime, the Tar Heels said they were determined to flip their passive nature in the second half. Even though they weren't playing starting forward John Henson, who was in uniform but missed his second straight game because of a sprained left wrist, they wanted to prove again that they were tough enough to overcome adversity.
“At halftime, the coaches got into us a little bit,’’ said point guard Kendall Marshall, who finished with 15 points and nine assists. “They basically said, ‘We have a choice. We can pack our bags up, or we can go out there and play. We’re in the championship game as it is, so why not try to win it? And I think the players took that to heart.”
Hairston said he did.
When he checked in with 15:30 left, he said he was focused on playing with more intensity, more fortitude.
And with his team trailing by 11, he played with more accuracy, too, burying three 3-pointers in less than a three-minute span to cut his team's deficit to seven points.
It was a Hairston that hadn't been seen for months; as the slumping-to-that-point sharpshooter had buried only 7 of his 45 3-point attempts in regular-season ACC play, and was 1-for-5 in the league tournament.
But Sunday, “I was getting a rhythm, I was getting good passes for my shot,’’ Hairston said. “I was spotting up, Kendall was coming down the court, finding me in transition. And the 3s I hit were big for the team. And that’s all I wanted to do was help my team win this game.”
And he got his chance.
With 3.3 seconds left -- after FSU’s Deividas Dulkys buried two free throws to give the Seminoles an 85-82 cushion -- UNC set up a last pay, with Tyler Zeller (19 points, 12 rebounds) inbounding from the midcourt sideline.
Teammates Harrison Barnes (23 points, 7 rebounds), Reggie Bullock and Hairston were the options, and with the other two covered, Zeller passed to Hairston. The wing took two dribbles toward the arc, got some separation from FSU guard Luke Loucks, and launched.
“It was right on line, and when I let it go, I knew it was going in,’’ he said.
But even though it didn’t, it was an important game for Hairston, who finished with 13 points on 3-for-9 shooting (3-for-7 on 3-pointers). Because it renewed his belief that he can be a key factor in the NCAA tournament. And it reinforced the confidence of those around him.
“P.J. has such a pure stroke, that every time he shoots it, I think it’s going in,’’ Marshall said. “… When you have a player that can shoot the ball the way he can, you have faith in him. And to see him really shoot the ball today, that’s great for our team.”
Follow Robbi Pickeral on Twitter at @bylinerp.