Heels carry six-game win streak into Duke game

Mar. 08, 2013 @ 07:22 PM

The last time North Carolina played Duke, the Tar Heels were reeling from a 26-point loss to Miami. It was the latest in a series of big defeats that made people wonder if UNC would even make the NCAA Tournament.

As the two teams meet again in the regular-season finale tonight at the Smith Center (9 p.m., ESPN), the Tar Heels are in a much better state of mind.

“We have this confidence now where we feel like we can’t be beat,” sophomore P.J. Hairston said. “Honestly, right now we just have this intensity that we bring to the game now that’s different from what people saw in the beginning of the season.”

The Tar Heels (22-8, 12-5 ACC) lost the first meeting with Duke by five points, but they've won their next six games heading into tonight's rematch. That streak coincides with two big changes – putting Hairston into the starting lineup in place of a traditional center, and shortening the rotation so that only six players get double-digit minutes.

Hairston is averaging a team-leading 17.6 points a game since entering the starting five, and his teammates have also picked up their production. Junior wing Reggie Bullock has become a determined rebounder, averaging 8.9 a game, while senior Dexter Strickland has 31 assists and only five turnovers.

The decision by UNC coach Roy Williams to start 6-9 James Michael McAdoo and four perimeter players went against his preference to run the Tar Heels’ offense from the inside out. But it didn’t shock Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski.

“It’s never a huge surprise when a coach plays his best five players at any portion of the game, whether he starts them (or) finishes with them,” Krzyzewski said. “So Roy’s a great coach. He’s used those five at different times in ballgames. He’s just now decided to go with them right away and get them more minutes together. I think it’s obviously a very smart move."

The Blue Devils (26-4, 13-4) are also dealing with a late-season transformation, having welcomed back senior power forward Ryan Kelly, who missed 13 games with a foot injury. Kelly appears to be another mismatch for the 6-5 Hairston on defense. But the undersized sophomore hasn't been a liability on that end yet, and the morale boost for UNC from Hairston entering the lineup has been invaluable.

“We’re definitely just as focused as we were going into those games, but I just feel like there’s a little bit more swagger and confidence that the guys are having," McAdoo said. "That might not be displayed but definitely, you can feel it.”

MCADOO AVAILABLE

James Michael McAdoo didn’t participate in a shoot-around Thursday because of a bulging disk in his back, but a team spokesman said he practiced Friday and “experienced no difficulties.”

McAdoo said he’s been dealing with a back injury since high school, but it hasn’t affected him in games. Williams said they have held McAdoo back in practice at times over the past month because of the back injury.

The sophomore tweaked his back in the second half Wednesday night at Maryland, but missed less than a minute before returning.

“It’s definitely something I want to eventually heal, but that will come with time and we don’t have time right now,” McAdoo said.

SEEDING NOTES

With a win, the Tar Heels would finish in a tie for second with Duke but would be the No. 3 seed in the ACC Tournament based on tiebreakers (namely, head-to-head record against Miami). If UNC loses and N.C. State beats Florida State Saturday, then UNC will be the No. 4 seed. … ESPN College GameDay will be making a record 10th appearance at UNC. The 8 p.m. evening show will be broadcast from inside the Smith Center.