GREENSBORO, N.C. — Following P.J. Hairston’s hand injury in North Carolina’s ACC tournament quarterfinal victory against Florida State on Friday, a solemn Roy Williams didn’t appear to be in the mood to celebrate.
After all, the sophomore guard needed eight stitches between the middle and ring fingers of his left hand and Williams was unsure about the status of the Tar Heels’ go-to shooter for Saturday’s semifinal matchup with Maryland.
“We’re extremely concerned right now,” Williams said Friday. “We have no idea, I have no idea, won’t have any idea…It doesn’t look good.”
Hairston was evaluated in pregame warm ups Saturday, though, and after being given the green-light to play, was right back in his normal starting spot for the tipoff, bandaged hand and all.
It took less than two minutes before a Hairston 3-pointer showed his coach just why he had nothing to worry about, and the Tar Heels overcame challenges all game long to squeak by the unrelenting Terrapins, 79-76.
UNC shot 43 percent from the floor in the first half. Maryland’s Dez Wells came into Saturday’s game with 51 combined points in the Terrapins’ first two ACC tournament wins, but Reggie Bullock’s unrelenting defense kept Wells from scoring for most of the first half. He went into the break, the Tar Heels leading 37-32, with just four points.
Though North Carolina seemed to have its way with Maryland throughout the first half, the Terrapins didn’t cower. UNC led by as many as 13 midway through the second half, but soon Wells found his stride and Maryland, which dominated in offense rebounds, attacked the boards to get back in the game.
At the 8:04 mark, UNC leading by just six, James Michael McAdoo picked up his fourth foul and headed to the bench, joining starting point Marcus Paige, who also had four.
Despite the newfound foul trouble, the Tar Heels proved that sharp shooting could get them out of the bind. Seconds later, Dexter Strickland heaved a cross-court pass to Bullock, who drained a deep bucket.
Maryland trailed by five points or fewer for the final four minutes of the game and even had a shot to force overtime as the final seconds ticked off. In the battle of the most relentless, the Terrapins just fell a little bit short.
“We never quit today,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. ”We missed a ton of layups and some balls bounced out of our hands to them and led to layups and things. But we just never quit and we had a shot at the buzzer to tie it.”
Throughout the afternoon, the Tar Heels used balanced scoring to get through the most difficult of trials presented by Maryland; Bullock and Strickland led UNC with 15 points apiece, while McAdoo and Hairston each had 13.
UNC’s victory earned it a spot in Sunday’s ACC tournament championship game for the third year in a row. The Tar Heels will tipoff against Miami, a team that beat them by 26 points a little more than a month ago, at 1 p.m.
North Carolina fell to the top-seeded Hurricanes twice this season, making the Tar Heels underdogs in their pursuit of their 18h ACC tournament title.
And though it’s a spot UNC isn’t typically used to filling, Strickland embraces it.
“We don’t have that much pressure (to win) as we did last year,” he said. “I can probably say that everyone doesn’t expect us to win now. They expect Miami to win. It’s less pressure, but we can’t use that as an excuse…we’re going to get them tomorrow.”