In Charlottesville in early January, the Virginia Cavaliers handcuffed the North Carolina Tar Heels and frustrated them with a vintage Tony Bennett-lockdown defense that held UNC to only 19-of-51 from the floor, allowing only five triples, six assists, and 14 turnovers. In college basketball, venue is a major, however immeasurable percentage, that can and often does determine the outcome of games. The key is the adjustments made by the coaching staff in putting the appointed team in position to win.
Roy Williams needed life in the struggling Tar Heels going into the Duke game on Wednesday, so he inserted sophomore P.J. Hairston to implement a four-guard lineup which gave UNC a huge opportunity to pull out the win in Durham had it not been for basically a 13-of-23 showing at the free throw line. To his credit, Williams changed nothing for Virginia on Saturday. He knew he need the athleticism of his components to strip away the vaunted methodical Virginia system and implement a consistent and frenetic transition game.
The adjustment paid off with a 93-81 win in one of the highest octane games that has been played in the ACC this season. The reasoning had to do with UNC’s ability to hold Virginia to three offensive rebounds and force 14 turnovers. With that, North Carolina controlled the defensive glass with 22. These facets are igniters of a transition package which saw UNC get to the rim and then tie the season-high with 13 three-pointers as they were shooting the triple in rhythm with efficiency.
At the center of the attack, Hairston played in a tremendous rhythm for all 29 of his minutes as he tallied a career-high 29 points, going 8-of-14 from the floor and making six treys as UNC broke the game open in the second half.
“It’s a lot of fun; you have Reggie (Bullock) running wing, Dexter (Strickland) pushing, Marcus (Paige) pushing, and me running the wing and trailing the middle and Michael running out to,” analyzed Hairston of the Tar Heels’ new attack, “You have four options as a point guard, so its a lot of fun.”
Virginia didn’t value the basketball at all after it broke on top 30-21 with 8:11 remaining in the first half. North Carolina held the Cavaliers scoreless for the next six possessions as they quickly went on a 10-0 run that included one of Hairston’s triples. Once they caught Virginia in such a small time lapse, the Tar Heels never let the Cavaliers get back out to a comfortable lead, though Jontel Evans heaved about a 40-foot three-pointer at the buzzer to tie the game at 40-40 at the half.
“Their line up with their four perimeters is hard to match up with and you can see that,” Bennett assessed, “They’re a little smaller and you think ‘maybe we can exploit them inside and they want hurt us on the glass,’ but they have some long angles to rebound from. They shot a lot of threes and when they’re hitting them and you’re not doing much to stop them, it’s going to be a long night.”
As North Carolina had a greater athletic advantage, they pumped up the running to begin the second half with a decisive 8-0 run, scoring on 10 of their first 13 second half possessions. When Hairston nailed triples on back-to-back trips midway through the second half, it was Hairston who had the answer to Virginia sharp-shooter Joe Harris, who was busy putting on a shooting clinic of his own with three treys inside of a 2:26 frame that cut the Tar Heels’ lead to 58-53.
“Us playing smaller opens up lanes for drivers and guards to slash and James-Michael to be able to have one-on-one opportunities with another big man,” said Hairston, “With him playing a five, a true center is going to play against him, so he has a quickness advantage against another big man.”
Hairston has upped his game of late and deserved the starting opportunity he has received in his last two outings. He now has a string of seven double-digit games where he has averaged 17.5 ppg. while shooting 52% in the stretch.
“We said, ‘they’re gonna shoot the catch.’ They’ re gonna drive the catch, shoot the catch, and if you’re not on them on the catch and bothering their shots…[sic]…If they’re hitting them with a hand in the face, ok, but they got too many where they didn’t have a hand in their face,” Bennett explained.
Hairston said he didn’t know if Williams intends to stay with the four-guard look, but he hopes so. The Greensboro, N.C. native sees the positives in the change for him and his team.
“I have a quickness advantage against other fours and sometimes a size advantage and a stronger advantage,” noted Hairston, “Coach wanted to see how it worked. I hope to start the rest of they way, but you cant really tell.”
Williams wouldn’t commit to the four-guard look as the primary offense after the game. He said he told the four smaller guys that when James Michael-MacAdoo shoots the basketball, they have to fly to the boards for the rebound. He liked what he saw out of Hairston and Reggie Bullock, who was playing with flu-like symptoms, in that regard.
“Two games in a row, P.J. has done a great job on the backboards,” Williams maintained, “We took a bad shot late in the game from the corner and Reggie got an offensive rebound for us then. I think both those guys got two offensive rebounds a piece.”
North Carolina had 13 points off 11 offensive rebounds, albeit against a much less athletic squad.
- Ken Cross
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