Saturday's 77-72 win over Florida State will be remembered mostly as the day when P.J. Hairston scored a career-high 23 points.
But it might have been another Hairston play, one that had absolutely nothing to do with putting the ball in the basket, that was most emblematic of the victory. With under six minutes left, Carolina had the ball, trailing 68-65. They ran a set that was designed to get the white-hot Hairston the ball near the top of the key.
The Seminoles, however, traditionally have the Tar Heels very well-scouted. On at least two occasions, when point guard Marcus Paige called a halfcourt set, the FSU defense immediately mimicked that same play call and their coaching staff leapt off the bench to shout instructions, indicating they felt they had a very good idea of what was coming.
That was the case on this occasion. James Michael McAdoo mostly whiffed on what was supposed to be a screen of Terry Whisnant, enabling Whisnant to shoot through and make a terrific defensive play by knocking the pass to Hairston away. Michael Snaer scooped up the ball and sprinted the other way, where Paige and Hairston were back on defense.
Both players first looked like they had intentions of taking a charge, but when Snaer swerved into the lane, Hairston raised his arms and went for the jump ball.
He got it, forcing the officials to go to the possession arrow, which favored the Tar Heels. Instead of going down by five points or more, Carolina had the ball back. Following Hairston's heady play, they closed the game on a 12-4 run.
"I was going to try and take the charge," Hairston said. "But I saw him pick the ball up and I put my hand right where the ball was, and I pushed down so he couldn't get the shot up. I knew I had the ball."
Roy Williams noticed, saying on his radio show this week, "P.J. doesn't get enough credit for what he can do defensively."
Hairston could've been forgiven for watching that play from a distance. After all, he was the game's star offensive player, the set had been run for him, and Whisnant's breakup had left Hairston a little off-balance. Hairston's hustle, however, might have been the turning point of the game.
"You can't let your team down," he said. "That was going to be an easy layup. Things like that, little things on defense, are what wins games."
He's right, and it wasn't the only example of the Tar Heels functioning as a team rather than five individuals. One of Williams's favorite expressions is "Help a teammate." He preaches it constantly, and it can mean almost anything--help a teammate off the floor when he hustles for a loose ball, remind an oblivious freshman about the time of the shootaround, or find an open player for a great shot.
With a minute left, it was something else entirely. With nine seconds left on the shot clock in what looked like a sputtering offensive possession, Williams had called timeout to set the play. Carolina led, 75-72, and the ball was inbounded to Jackson Simmons, who held the ball high, around 30 feet from the basket. Florida State's swarming defense knocked the ball away, and Terrance Shannon gathered it in and raced for what looked like a layup that would cut the Seminole deficit to one point.
But here came Marcus Paige, who had been setting a screen near the free throw line, a good 10 feet away from the action. Paige turned on the jets and caught up with the bigger, slower Shannon in only a couple of strides. That put him in position to swipe at the ball as Shannon neared the hoop, knocking it in the air and recovering it with the Tar Heels' 3-point lead still intact. It was the textbook example of Paige helping a teammate, Simmons.
"I knew I had to go down and make a play," Paige said. "When you want to win so badly, and you lose yourself in the game like Coach has been preaching, those plays just happen."
It was actually the second time in the game that Paige had erased a potential Seminole easy basket. With 10:33 left in the first half, the freshman sprinted back to negate what would have otherwise been a 2-on-0 FSU fast break. Paige didn't block that particular shot, but his presence bothered Ian Miller and forced a miss, which Paige rebounded. Perhaps it's no surprise, then, that Paige's efforts earned him the defensive award from the Tar Heel coaches, the second straight game and third time in the last five games he's claimed that honor.
The team-wide extra effort didn't go unnoticed by Williams.
"For us, one of our biggest problems is we haven't played with enough sense of urgency," he said. "I think those two losses in a row made us play with a greater sense of urgency...We had been backed up against the edge of the cliff, so we needed to play."Adam Lucas is the publisher of Tar Heel Monthly and the author or co-author of seven books on the Tar Heels.