Since he joined the starting lineup of North Carolina, sophomore sharp-shooter P.J. Hairston has been a difference maker. He’s also allowed the talented Tar Heels to become all they can be.
Wednesday night in a 79-68 victory over Maryland before a sellout crowd of 17,950 at Comcast Center, Hairston scored a game-high 22 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and had three steals, leading suddenly-efficient North Carolina to its sixth straight impressive victory and damaging the NCAA tournament hopes of the Terrapins.
While it has become clear that Maryland (20-10, 8-9) now will have to make an extended run in the ACC tournament to reach the NCAAs, North Carolina (22-8, 12-5) is rapidly ascending after being an NCAA bubble team a month ago. All six of the Tar Heels’ wins in their streak have come by at least nine points.
The play of the 6-foot-5 Hairston has been key. In the first game of the winning streak, he scored 29 points in a 93-81 torching of the formidable defense of Virginia. On Wednesday, his offense opened the floor for his teammates including junior Reggie Bullock (19 points, 12 rebounds, three steals), who hit 4 of 6 shots from beyond the arc.
“I’m really disappointed,” Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said. “We didn’t play very smart down the stretch. That said, North Carolina’s really good. They’re really playing well, making shots. Bullock and Hairston are tough matchups.”
In their final home game, it was a sad sendoff for Maryland seniors James Padgett (nine points, seven rebounds) and Logan Aronhalt, who failed to score, missing all five of his 3-point attempts. Sophomores Dez Wells (18 points, six rebounds) and Nick Faust (16 points, two steals) sparked the Terps, but they didn’t get enough help.
“I talked to Logan, talked to James. I made sure I high-fived all my guys,” Wells said. “I felt like we played really, really hard. The ball’s not going to bounce your way every night. But effort is something you can’t coach. We did a really good job. We gave great effort.”
But once again for Maryland, there were too many mental mistakes. Turgeon was particularly upset with the overanxious play of Faust.
“Instead of going in for a layup, [he] pulled up for three, which makes no sense to me,” Turgeon said. “I have to keep coaching them the best I can.”
After watching his NCAA tournament hopes take another hit, Turgeon showed the strain of another disappointment. When questioned about a sore subject, his hesitance to use full-court pressure, a tactic that helped the Terps’ rally on Wednesday night, his frustration was evident.
“Everybody gets caught up in that, but it’s easy to come back, guys,” Turgeon said. “You’re down 16, you’re just playing loose and all that kind of stuff. To come back and win is different. Did the press help us? Yeah. It gave us a chance. But I just don’t think that’s the answer. We pressed Georgia Tech, they killed us. We pressed Boston College, they killed us.”
Turgeon also was unhappy with the play of sophomore Alex Len (eight points, seven rebounds) in the half-court offense.
“He got a wide open lob. He got a couple loose-ball dunks,” Turgeon said. “When we threw him the ball, not much happened.”
With Len hitting a pair of uplifting reverse dunks, Padgett scoring on back-to-back possessions, and Faust and Wells hitting 3-pointers, Maryland rallied from an early 12-4 deficit to take a 27-24 lead. But North Carolina scored the final 10 points of the half, getting 3-pointers from Hairston and freshman point guard Marcus Paige (nine points, eight turnovers) to take the lead for good.
The UNC lead swelled to 16 points in the second half, before Maryland scrambled back into it. Backcourt steals by Faust and Allen fueled a furious spurt as the Terps scored seven points in 22 seconds. A 3-pointer by Faust cut the deficit to 63-57. But UNC answered with a 3-pointer by Paige and a 3-point-play by McAdoo, sandwiched around a costly Allen turnover, to resume control.
“They don’t run many sets. They have a freelance offense,” Wells said. “That’s harder to guard. You can scout sets and you know people are gonna be where they’re supposed to be.”