P.J. Hairston reacts in the second half against the Florida State Seminoles during the Final Game of the 2012 ACC Men's Basketball Conference Tournament.
One day, I will understand what FSU's guards see when they see Carolina. Because UNC's perimeter defense isn't bad. It was in January, but it has been solid for a month now. And yet... Michael Snaer hit four of five threes. Deividas Dulkys was four of ten, for sixteen points, the most since, well, the last UNC game. Luke Loucks even drained a pair of threes to go with an ACC Championship record 13 assists. Overall the team shot a blistering 47.8% from behind the arc, with hands in their faces and the pressure on.
UNC was not so fortunate. They struggled early, being beat on the boards and missing shots early. After FSU's seventh three of the first half, the Seminoles led 47-31. To his credit, Roy Williams called his second timeout of the first half, the team regrouped, and closed out the half with a 9-2 run. Harrison Barnes had fifteen first-half points, an although the team trailed by nine at the break, they were fighting their way back into it.
Carolina's second half adjustments haven't always been successful, and within five minutes of the second, the Seminoles had extended the lead to 14 on a pair of threes. It was then that UNC turned to possibly the last person you'd expect, as P.J. Hairston drained two consecutive threes of his own to cut the lead to eight. Over the course of the next five minutes, Hairston would score 11 of his 13 points, both on threes and once the defense came out on him, driving to the hoop.
Even so, FSU stayed strong. Snaer hit the team's final three with eight minutes remaining, an ugly, no-arc shot with Justin Watts' hand in his face, and the Seminoles led by nine. But UNC clawed their way back slowly, while the calls were going FSU's way; with the lead still at eight and 3:25 remaining, UNC started making the most of every possession, while FSU turned it over. Marshall's two free throw made it six. Hairston's made it four. Okaro White and Barnes traded baskets, and down four James Michael McAdoo blocked Loucks shot and took the ball down the court.
The following possession says a lot about the grit this Carolina team has. Bullock missed a three, and the team clawed away the rebound. McAdoo had his shot "blocked" by Bernard James. UNC still maintains possession and Barnes tries a three. No good. Hairston gets the rebound, goes for the layup, and has James block his shot, his arm, and his face. No call, but UNC gets one more crack at it, and Kendall Marshall drains the three. One-point game, thirty seconds remaining.
It would never get any closer. Okaro White was sent to the line, and missed the front end of the one-and-one. But with ten seconds remaining, Marshall's three didn't fall, and Carolina didn't have it in them to get their eighteenth offensive boards. The Heels would have one more chance, now down three, but the only shot they could get was Hairston's three from a few steps behind the arc. It didn't fall, and Florida State was cutting down the nets for the first time.
All in all, given John Henson's absence and Carolina's shallow bench after three days of play, this wasn't a bad outcome. This team was tested like they've been only rarely this season, and shown considerable heart to stay in it. All of this will serve them well in the tournament. Barnes had a good day, and Zeller did a yeoman's work underneath despite the physicality the Seminoles kept throwing at him. He would finish with 19 points and 12 of the Heels' 38 boards, but was unable to get the ball late. Teams still realize that he's the last guy they want getting touches when the game is close.
As for the rebounding wars in general, Carolina won them decidedly, a big improvement over the teams' last meeting. And this is without Henson – McAdoo was very good on the boards if a dismal 2-10 from the field. Hairston's resurgence was welcome, and I hope it's the start of something, and not just a one game aberration. This is a team forged to win the national championship now, and there's nothing to do but wait and see where the team lands.