- Robbi Pickeral, College Basketball
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CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- It took P.J. Hairston a couple of moments to hear the cheers.
“First, I was kind of posing," the North Carolina reserve admitted, somewhat sheepishly, as he described the aftermath of his flying second-half one-handed jam over 6-foot-11 Georgia Tech center Daniel Miller on Wednesday night.
“Then I had to get back on defense. But after that, when I came back to the bench, I heard them chanting my name.”
He liked it.
He’d like to hear more of it.
And so would the Tar Heels, who showed again during their 79-63 victory over Georgia Tech that they’re a whole lot better team when Hairston is actively -- and consistently -- hitting shots (be it dunks or 3-pointers or driving layups).
“I’ll take 3-for-6 from the 3-point line every time,” said UNC coach Roy Williams, looking at a Hairston line that also included 15 points on 5-for-11 shooting. “But we’ve got to get the consistency out of him if he wants to be the big-time player we need him to be.”
Indeed, Hairston -- a 6-foot-5 reserve wing who has also played power forward this season when his team goes to a smaller lineup -- has shown that he is capable of starring. But too often, he has followed big performances with letdowns.
After his 15-point outing in a win over then-No. 20 UNLV last month, for example, he shot just 5-for-16, with 13 points total, during his team’s 0-2 ACC start at Virginia and against Miami.
Then after recording a career-high 23 points at Florida State to help keep his team from falling to 0-3, his offense disappeared again against Maryland last weekend, as he shot 1-for-8. UNC still won, thanks to big first-half outputs from leading scorers Reggie Bullock and James Michael McAdoo.
But when Hairston is connecting, McAdoo said, it gives foes another offensive weapon to worry about -- and thus opens up opportunities for everyone else. That's important, especially on a team in which points can still be hard to come by.
“I just think it makes things so much easier,” said McAdoo, who recorded 14 points and nine rebounds Wednesday; Bullock led the team with 17 points. “Especially when I’m in the post, knowing that those double-teams can’t come, because they can’t leave shooters -- not only him, but Reggie and Marcus [Paige].
“ I’ve been playing with P.J. since I was in the eighth grade, so I’ve seen what he can do. I’ve seen how he can dominate games.”
Williams, whose team (13-5, 3-2 ACC) has now won three in a row, said he thinks his squad is getting closer to being "good." But he needs his players to finish more plays, he said, and make more shots. Which is where Hairston knows he can come in.
“It’s up to me to find myself in the game, and take what they [opponents] give me," said the sophomore, who is now averaging 11.9 points for the season. “And this game, I started out with a layup, then worked my way out, to where I got wide-open 3s.”
And then, after getting comfortable there, he worked his way back in. And in memorable fashion.
That flying dunk with 6:16 left -- on an assist from senior Dexter Strickland, who made a steal -- was Hairston’s final bucket of the night, and gave the Tar Heels a comfortable 70-53 cushion.
The fact that it was over the ACC leader in blocks? A bonus -- just like the “P-J! Hair-ston!” chants that came afterward.
“Honestly, I didn’t see him until the last second, and I was up there, so I thought, ‘Why not?’” Hairston said, recalling the throw-down, again. “I had my mind made up to dunk it, but little did I know I was going to be dunking on a 6-11 center.”