Roy Williams heard the calls for P.J. and finally gave Hairston his chance last night against Duke. Hairston delivered with 23 points, eight rebounds, three assists, and two blocks in 34 minutes. The Tar Heels lost a hard-fought 73-68 contest on Duke’s home floor, but it sure felt like a win to me.
Hairston seized the leadership role from the opening tip, and Carolina looked like a completely different team. UNC played with a toughness and swagger that’s been missing for most of the season, and the Tar Heels were the best team on the court for the majority of the game. Losing to Duke is always a mood-killer, but this time was different.
What P.J. Hairston did for the Tar Heels goes way beyond the stats. Hairston came out with phenomenal energy and set an aggressive tone early. He attacked the rim, saved countless possessions with tip-ins and tap-outs and took at least four charges. These kind of momentum-turning plays are priceless, and P.J. makes them consistently.
The rest of the team raised its level to match Hairston’s, and UNC actually led for much of the game. While it will go down as a loss in the record books, this game was a win for Carolina and its fans. UNC’s leader has arrived. Better basketball is on the way.
Brice Johnson didn’t play much, but this time I think that was a good call. He was clearly shaken in his few minutes on the court, and he wasn’t ready for the environment at Cameron Indoor Stadium. I still hope he will play big minutes at home against Virginia, and he has to be the first (and hopefully only) center that comes in when McAdoo isn’t playing the 5.
Johnson has skills, but his lack of experience so far this season has him stuck in beginner mode. He needs to star in the comfy confines of the Dean E. Smith Center before he’s ready to handle one of the most pressure-packed games in sports.
James Michael McAdoo had a great start, frustrating Mason Plumlee and getting him in foul trouble early. McAdoo gave tremendous effort and won the matchup in the first half, but he was still largely out of control. He has to slow down and stop trying to do so much.
McAdoo is extremely good in the role of garbage man, hustling all over the court and doing the dirty work. His strengths are crashing the glass and finishing at the rim, and he needs to stick to that until he improves his shot and body control. He should never take a jumper unless he’s wide open. When he attempts to create off the dribble and take a contested shot, bad things usually happen. Having Hairston as the No. 1 option should take a lot of the pressure off McAdoo.
I’ve been pretty hard on Roy Williams lately, so I’m going to give him some credit. Choosing to defend the three-point shot and play Plumlee straight up was the right decision. Cutting his lineup to six players in this game was also the correct call. Starting Hairston and playing him most of the game was clearly a game-changer. This was without a doubt Williams’ best coaching job of the season.
With Hairston leading the way from here on out, Carolina will make the NCAA tournament. UNC was just a few free throws away from beating Duke in Durham, proving that every remaining game on the schedule is winnable. Buckle up, Carolina fans, the rest of this season just got a lot more interesting.