The statistics leaned heavily in Duke’s favor prior to the tip. The Blue Devils had outscored their last five opponents by 16 points before the first media timeout. North Carolina, on the other hand, had been outscored 48-19 against its last five opponents before that first official break.
UNC’s last three wins in Cameron shared one critical common denominator – the Tar Heels led by five points or more after the first media timeout.
In an effort to reverse the recent trend, Williams inserted P.J. Hairston into the starting lineup not for Dexter Strickland, but for Desmond Hubert.
The adjustment worked. UNC’s small lineup forced three turnovers on Duke’s first eight possessions and held a 9-6 lead at the first media timeout. Hairston took advantage of his early matchup with Josh Hairston as the Tar Heels were up by as many as 10 points before entering halftime with a 33-29 lead.
“One of the ways we’ve been struggling is scoring and so putting P.J. in there gives us another scorer in the lineup,” Williams told reporters following the 73-68 loss.
Hairston tied his career-high with 23 points on 8-of-18 shooting. The sophomore pulled down eight rebounds – seven offensive – and led his team with three assists, two blocks and two drawn charges.
“For us, he’s such a good scorer and Duke’s 4-man – Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston – is not a focal point of their offense because they’re a 3-point shooting team or throwing the ball to Mason inside,” Williams said, adding that he had thought about making the move four or five games ago. “So we hoped that P.J. would be able to battle and guard inside. He did fine with that.”
Hairston found out that he would get the start after reading the practice report on Monday.
“He can shoot the ball,” Bullock said of Hairston. “He can rebound. Just to have him out there takes a lot of attention off me and [McAdoo], for him to be able to spread the floor and run in transition. He’s a 4-man but he can play the two or three, so when he catches the ball off the rebound, he can push the ball in transition, too.”
Hairston’s minutes with both James Michael McAdoo and Reggie Bullock have been limited this season due to 10 players averaging 10 minutes or more. On Wednesday, however, Williams reduced his rotation to six players, thus allowing his primary three scorers to play together for extended periods of time.
When asked if playing more alongside McAdoo and Bullock spread the floor more than usual, Hairston replied: “Of course, because the defense gets sucked in from watching us drive and that opens up other teammates who can also shoot the ball.”
Four starters – McAdoo, Bullock, Hairston and Dexter Strickland – logged 34 minutes or more while Marcus Paige played 30 minutes. Leslie McDonald (20 min) was the only other Tar Heel to play more than four minutes.
“I was trying to win the dadgum game,” Williams said when asked about tightening his rotation. “I don’t make decisions about how many minutes a guy’s going to play. I’m going to play the guys that I want at that specific time. We may play five guys 40 minutes on Saturday. I may be back playing 12 guys in the first half.”
Hairston was a critical addition to the lineup, but he was not the only reason for North Carolina’s improved play against Duke. For one of the few times this season, UNC was the aggressor off the tip.
“We haven’t come out with intensity basically all year and we wanted to make a difference this game and hit them first instead of letting them hit us,” said Hairston, who has scored 38 total points in his two starts this season. “I felt like we came out and we did that immediately.”
Williams is not one to make significant changes during the course of a season. Despite the loss, UNC’s play on Wednesday may force him to consider that lineup more often as March approaches.