New-look lineup leads UNC past Virginia

Throughout the first month and a half of North Carolina’s season, coach Roy Williams was confident about four of his five starters.

The fifth one, though, he wasn’t so sure about.

Early on, Williams cycled through the Tar Heel big men — Desmond Hubert, Joel James and Brice Johnson — giving each a chance to show what they could bring to the starting role. Sophomore forward P.J. Hairston, on the other hand, was coming off the bench and continually giving the Tar Heels a lift.

Against Duke earlier this week then Saturday against Virginia, Williams mixed it up. He replaced Hubert, who before Wednesday had started every ACC game this season, with the hot-handed Hairston.

And in a 93-81 win against Virginia, something finally clicked for the Tar Heels.

Hairston, in his second start this season, scored 29 points and grabbed seven rebounds in a hard-fought victory against the defensive-minded Cavaliers.

At first, when Virginia went on an early 13-2 run, it seemed as if the Cavaliers 3-point shooting would be the Tar Heels’ demise. Virginia went 8-for-13 from behind the arc in the first half.

After scoring the first basket of the game, UNC didn’t lead again before until the 4:16 mark in the first half.

Virginia, which before today had the nation’s second best defense, was shutting down James Michael McAdoo, who had just five points in the first half. But the Tar Heels began to pick up the defensive intensity as the game wore on and they discovered that the new lineup allowed for a different kind of shooting threat.

The very thing that put the Tar Heels in an early hole would soon prove to be their ticket to victory.

UNC (17-8, 7-5 ACC) shot 49 percent from the floor Saturday and went 13-for-28 from deep — the most 3-pointers the Tar Heels have had since a Dec. 22 win against McNeese State. Including the 23 points he had against Duke on Wednesday, Hairston has scored 52 points in his two starts this season.

“They had us pretty much guessing and a step behind,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “It’s a bad feeling when you’re sitting on the bench and saying, ‘We can’t get a stop.’”

Williams wouldn’t reveal why it took him so long to make the lineup change. Senior Dexter Strickland, who had 12 points and six assists Saturday, is just glad he finally did.

“(We’re) much better,” Strickland said. “It just relieves pressure off of everybody. Just (Hairston’s) ability to shoot, get to the rack, get those rebounds, it gives us the opportunity to run even faster on offense.”

Williams conceded that going with a smaller lineup made him worry about how his team would fare on the boards. Early in the game Saturday, he was frustrated with his team’s rebounding effort after he said he saw no one go up for the rebound after a McAdoo jumper.

“I said, ‘Guys. You small guys that like this small lineup, I cannot do that if I don’t have you guys getting to the boards when James Michael is shooting,’” Williams said. “I think (the rebounding) is the most crucial part of the game.”

Getting to the boards, however, didn’t prove to be an issue for the Tar Heels, as they outrebounded Virginia 33-24. Williams was pleased with Hairston’s career-high scoring total, but the thing that made him most proud, perhaps, was the Hairston’s two offensive rebounds.

Hairston’s performance might have bought him another ticket to the starting five and proved to Williams and his teammates why he deserves the responsibility. But even simpler than that, a grinning Hairston said after the game he was just happy to have had the experience.

“It was fun,” Hairston said. “I’m not saying we weren’t having fun before, but we weren’t winning like we wanted to win. Now that we’re having fun with this lineup, we can really take it far.”

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