Canes have pushed North Carolina to get better

Mar. 17, 2013 @ 10:28 PM

If North Carolina makes a run in the NCAA Tournament, the Tar Heels likely will have the Miami Hurricanes to thank — again.

The Hurricanes' 87-77 win over UNC in Sunday's ACC Tournament final could be another turning point for the Tar Heels.

There's no argument that they played better than in their 87-61 loss at Miami on Feb. 9. Maybe there was no where to go but up.

This time, the Tar Heels matched the Hurricanes' intensity and turned the game into a footrace that forced Miami to abandon its bigger lineup early.

UNC sophomore P.J. Hairston, who had 28 points despite playing with eight stitches in his left hand, said the Tar Heels drew inspiration — and maybe agitation — from their film session Saturday night.

"Last time we played them, ... they were having fun against us," Hairston said. "So we wanted to come out today and play with the intensity that we haven't played with against Miami, that Miami hadn't seen and kind of surprise them."

Marcus Paige, UNC's freshman point guard, was even more direct.

"Watching the film ... probably helped our mindset, because you watch that and you take it personal when you see them throwing the ball at the backboard and dunking it and getting wild with shots and high-fiving during the game," Paige said.

"So we just wanted to come out with the mindset that we're a better team than we showed last time. ..."

Not just a different team, but a better team.

Hairston's insertion into the starting lineup came immediately after the loss at Miami, and the Tar Heels have won 8 of 11 games since the change — with a pair of losses to Duke preceding Sunday's setback against No. 9 Miami.

"I think the lineup change is something that just happened," UNC coach Roy Williiams said. "Every one of my players got better, and that was the biggest deal. Each individual got better in what we were trying to get them to do, and that was the bigger story to me than the lineup change.

"Yes, we did that because we thought it would give us a better chance to win, (but) credit should be given to those kids who really worked extremely hard to get better."

The players have a different approach, as well.

"We've gotten tougher and we've grown up," Hairston said. "We are (still) a young team. We have a couple of seniors, but ... we've grown up to where we don't let teams jump on us early. We'll fight back and just play hard, play poised until we work our way back into the game."

That wasn't necessary Sunday, as the Tar Heels built an early lead that left the Hurricanes battling back.

"In my head, I knew we were going to win this game," Hairston said. "Everything was going right. Of course, Miami was hitting shots, but everything was going right on our end."

In the end, Miami guards Shane Larkin and Trey Jones McKinney did the bulk of the damage with 28 and 20 points, respectively, including a combined 10-of-16 performance from 3-point range.

UNC senior guard Dexter Strickland said he took that personally.

"It motivates me a lot to better my game and help my team win more," Strickland said. "I think we're a great team. I wasn't as aggressive as I should have been. That's something I'll think about and better myself. I could have done a much better job on defense and offense to help."

UNC players, while disappointed with not winning the program's 18th ACC Tournament title, were philosophical after the defeat.

"We're still playing; that's always good," Hairston said. "We want to take this game ... to the next one and change our mistakes, build up more intensity and confidence."

UNC is the No. 8 seed in the South Regional, with an opening-round matchup against Villanova in Kansas City.

The Tar Heels head into the NCAA Tourament 24-10 overall — not one of the great records in the annals of UNC basketball, but far better than some expected after they started the ACC portion of the season with a pair of losses.

"We're growing," Hairston said. "At the beginning of the year, everyone was doubting us, saying 'Oh, Carolina's not going to be this, Carolina's not going to be that.' We've proved people wrong.

"We made it to the ACC championship game, played a big-time team and ... played hard for 40 minutes. It just didn't come out the way we wanted it to."

But now they know how well they can play.

You may contact Jimmy DuPree at jdupree@heraldsun.com or 919-419-6674.