Just as he did in the teams’ first two matchups, Miami guard Shane Larkin had his way with the North Carolina defense, draining shot after shot in the first half, including three from long range.
A cut sustained during the quarterfinal game against Florida State between P.J. Hairston’s fingers didn’t stop the sharpshooter from doing what he does best.
Hairston, who made the All-Tournament first team along with Reggie Bullock, finished the game with 28 points, his third 20-point game so far this month, and had six 3-pointers.
In a two-minute span before intermission, the lead, which changed hands 13 times in the opening half alone, went back and forth as the teams traded 3-point buckets.
The Tar Heels (24-10) longed for ACC Tournament championship rings and for the opportunity to win their 18th tournament title. But more than that, pride motivated the Tar Heels.
Saturday night and the morning before the game, UNC watched film of its 26-point loss to the Hurricanes in Coral Gables. The Tar Heels relived the on-court celebrating throughout the game and Larkin’s off-the-backboard alley-oop to Kenny Kadji.
“That’s stuff you do in the playground, playing around,” Dexter Strickland said after Sunday’s loss. “They were basically playing around with us, and we felt it was disrespectful. We were pumped up and ready to go.”
After the break, the game was within the Tar Heels’ reach. Miami never led by more than five in the second half until the 1:36 mark.
Recognizing the need to cool UNC’s shooters, Miami coach Jim Larranaga said he used a smaller lineup to enable more defensive switching.
During a five-minute span late in the game, as UNC tried to dig its way out of a then-manageable hole, Bullock and Hairston combined for four missed 3-pointers.
With 2:06 to play, Bullock’s deep shot attempt bounced off the rim. Seconds later on the other end, Trey McKinney Jones sunk the same shot, giving Miami an eight-point lead it didn’t relinquish.
The Tar Heels couldn’t help but dwell on the lost championship as they sat dejected following Miami’s confetti shower. But at the same time, Hairston couldn’t deny one highlight of the day.
“I don’t think we can play any better than that,” Hairston said about his team’s first-half performance.
The eighth-seeded Tar Heels are hoping that will be enough in the NCAA Tournament.
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