Hairston, Crazies have Tar Heels focused
Duke’s famed student section didn’t just fire up the Blue Devils during last week’s game against North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
The Cameron Crazies also provided motivation for UNC senior Dexter Strickland.
Strickland heard Duke students chanting “NIT” late in the Blue Devils’ win, a reference to the Tar Heels’ tenuous hold on an NCAA Tournament bid.
Strickland was a freshman on the 2009-10 team that missed the NCAA Tournament, and he told his teammates after the Duke loss that it can’t happen again.
“Me and (junior Reggie Bullock) actually talked to the team and said that we can’t have an ’09-’10 season,” Strickland said. “We’re a great team. We have a lot of potential. We just have to start playing like it, and I think everybody is starting to understand that.”
Sure enough, UNC (17-8, 7-5 ACC) improved its NCAA Tournament prospects with a 93-81 win over Virginia on Saturday. But it isn’t enough to get quality wins — the Tar Heels also must avoid bad losses, making today’s game at Georgia Tech (9 p.m., WRAL) just as important.
Though UNC is 0-5 against currently ranked teams — losing by an average of 15 points against Miami (twice), Duke, Indiana and Butler — it also is 12-1 against teams outside the Top 100 in the RPI, with the only blemish coming at No. 142 Texas. The Yellow Jackets (14-10, 4-8) currently are No. 128.
UNC is coming off its most impressive offensive performance of the season, having scored 93 points against a Virginia team that hadn’t allowed more than 69 in a game.
“You can’t take away everything, and we weren’t taking away anything,” Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said. “I thought they got to the lane, I thought they got to the glass, I thought they got rhythm 3s.
“They had us pretty much guessing and a step behind, and it’s a bad feeling when you’re sitting on the bench saying, ‘We can’t get a stop.’”
Strickland’s motivational speech wasn’t the primary reason. For the second straight game, UNC coach Roy Williams started sophomore guard P.J. Hairston instead of a traditional center.
Hairston not only scored 29 points against the Cavs — the most a UNC player has scored in a game this season — but his presence on the court also has made scoring easier for his teammates.
“I feel like we’re more aggressive on the offensive end,” Bullock said. “I feel very comfortable with everyone out there. It’s more fun to me, just adding another shooter and help take a lot of attention off me.”
Hairston’s defender must guard him along the perimeter, creating more space for others in the lane. Strickland, who had 12 points and six assists against the Cavs, has scored in double figures in consecutive games for the first time during league play.
“It allows my game to grow, as far as getting to the basket, kicking out, making easy layups, allowing us to run even faster,” Strickland said. “I think it’s a great lineup.”
Still, Williams on Monday wouldn’t commit to starting Hairston against Georgia Tech, saying it depended on matchups.
Regardless of the lineup, Strickland was glad to see a better effort against Virginia. When asked if he told his teammates about his NIT experience, the senior said no.
“I try to not go into those details,” Strickland said. “That was horrible. I didn’t mention that at all.”
NOTES — UNC center Joel James will miss his third straight game with a concussion. “We think he’s getting better, he thinks he’s getting better, but he’s not there yet,” Williams said. The freshman is averaging 2.0 points and 1.8 rebounds in 8.2 minutes during conference play. ... This will be the Tar Heels’ first appearance at the new McCamish Pavilion. UNC lost five of its last six games to the Yellow Jackets at the Alexander Memorial Coliseum. ... Georgia Tech committed 19 turnovers and shot 36 percent in a 79-63 loss at the Smith Center on Jan. 23.