Hairston helped build ?rst-half lead

DURHAM — The North Carolina men’s basketball team has struggled with slow starts all season long. But that was not the case in Wednesday night’s 73-68 loss at Duke.

The Tar Heels quickly built a lead that the Blue Devils couldn’t steal away until the second half.

“We came out with fire,” P.J. Hairston said. “We came out wanting it more. We came out with intensity. We came out playing hard and playing together.”

They also came out with Hairston in the starting lineup.

Hairston started just one game before Wednesday, and that was in December against UNLV. The Tar Heels won that game, and Hairston had 15 points. But once Reggie Bullock recovered from injury, Hairston was back on the bench.

It wasn’t Bullock that Hairston replaced against Duke. Instead, coach Roy Williams decided to go with a smaller lineup, and he sat Desmond Hubert in favor of the sophomore guard.

“Everybody said, ‘Well you’ll put P.J. in for somebody else.’ But nobody knows my team, but it’s popular to say who the hell is supposed to be in the lineup and you don’t know what in the dickens you’re talking about,” Williams said.

Hairston made the most of his starting role and scored a game-high 23 points, which tied his career-high, in 34 minutes. All game long, he was battling for position in the paint and on the glass. His efforts were rewarded with eight free throw attempts and eight rebounds.

Hairston found out on Monday that he would be on the floor for the opening tip.

“When he told me, I wasn’t really jumping around happy,” Hairston said. “I was more like, ‘This is my time. I’m ready.’”

The change in the lineup allowed the Tar Heels to space the floor, especially in transition, as Hairston added an additional perimeter threat.

“It enabled us to run faster,” senior Dexter Strickland said about the change in the lineup. “We’re a running team and getting out on the break it made it easier for us with P.J. being a great shooter.”

After the Tar Heels surrendered the lead in the second half, it was Hairston that came up with the immediate answer.

After Seth Curry knocked down the 3-pointer that gave Duke its first lead of the game, Hairston battled for an offensive rebound on the other end and eventually made a trip to the free-throw line where he gave UNC the lead back.

That lead wouldn’t hold as the Blue Devils took off on a 3-point shooting rampage that the Tar Heels couldn’t match.

“P.J., who has really been shooting the ball extremely well from the 3-point line, was 1-for-7 and Leslie (McDonald) was 0-for-3, and both of them are good shooters,” Williams said. “But you have to congratulate Duke’s perimeter defense because they made the shots covered, they made them more difficult.”

Williams said that he liked his team’s intensity from the start but wouldn’t commit to anything regarding the starting lineup moving forward.

“Who knows,” he said, “I may start five different guys Saturday.”

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