GREENSBORO, N.C. — For nearly 36 minutes, it was the dream homecoming for Greensboro native P.J. Hairston. The North Carolina guard hit each of his first four 3-pointers in the first half, and his game-best 21 points gave the Tar Heels a 20-point lead in the waning minutes of the ACC quarterfinal against Florida State.
Then, a freak accident left him keeled over in pain and blood dripping across the Greensboro Coliseum court. While battling FSU’s Aaron Thomas for a loose ball, the ball became wedged between his middle and ring fingers on his left hand. It split the webbing between the two fingers, causing him to receive eight stitches and a questionable status for Saturday’s semifinal against Maryland.
In the end, UNC was able to easily hold off the Seminoles and walk away with a complete, 83-62 win.
But, the mood in the locker room wasn’t as joyous as it should have been, considering UNC bounced back from a crushing home loss to Duke and played one of its most sound games of the season. Concern over Hairston’s hand infiltrated the atmosphere — a feeling that became all too familiar last season when John Henson and Kendall Marshall both sustained injuries in mid-March.
“P.J. was big early because he was all our offense,” coach Roy Williams said. “We’re extremely concerned right now. His hand is torn up, and they’re stitching it up in the training room right now. I have no idea, won’t have any idea (about his status).”
Hairston’s night harkened back to his performance against Boston College, when he hit four 3-pointers and lifted the Tar Heels to a commanding lead before leaving the game with a concussion. Similarly, on Friday night, his quick start gave UNC control of the contest early.
Hairston hit two 3-pointers late in the first half to allow the Tar Heels to finish the half on a 12-2 run and take an eight-point lead into the break. Early into the second stanza, another 3-pointer of his triggered a 13-0 run that seemed to knock the Seminoles out of the game for good.
Hairston was feeling it. Following his fourth 3-pointer from right wing, he turned to face the crowd and let out an elongated scream to let the Coliseum crowd know that he was back home. Even after suffering a shoulder stinger early in the second half, he came back out and was making strong moves to the hoop. He effectively converted his energy into instant offense for the Tar Heels.
Alongside Hairston, the rest of UNC’s squad turned in an all-around effort that alluded more to the team that won six straight than the one that flopped against Duke in the season finale.
Reggie Bullock found his stroke in the second half and finished with 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting. Marcus Paige racked up 10 assists and only turned the ball over once. James Michael McAdoo was limited to a season-low 14 minutes due to foul trouble, but he still wound up with 12 points on 6-of-9 shooting.
Across the floor, the energy was up for the Tar Heels, and they used that to force 18 turnovers that turned into 27 points on the other end.
“Making shots does a lot for you team energy-wise, momentum-wise — everything,” Paige said. “Seeing someone start off hot gives you a little momentum as an offense. It motivates your defense a little bit more, and getting one guy going usually gets some others going, too.”
The Tar Heels shot 49.2 percent from the floor for the game, and their 61.3 percent effort in the second half never gave FSU a chance to fight back.
Senior guard Dexter Strickland, who was driving through the Seminole defense at will to tally 10 points and seven assists, credited UNC’s offensive onslaught to running the offense and generating good, open looks.
There were questions about how the young Tar Heels would be able to answer the potentially momentum-stalling loss to Duke. In their ACC Tournament debut, they made quick work of the thought that they would stumble through the end of the season.
“We didn’t let the loss to Duke hurt our confidence,” Strickland said. “I think we kept our composure and played well … We know what type of team we are, and we used that as motivation to come out even harder this game.”
That type of intensity will need to continue, as UNC next faces a Maryland team that knocked off second-seeded Duke on Friday. And, with Hairston questionable for a stitched-up left hand — his non-shooting hand — someone else might have to step up and serve as catalyst.
Hairston entered Friday wanting to put on a show for the “336,” his Greensboro area code. He did that, but his performance was cut short, quite literally, before he got the ovation he deserved.