In order to be Saturday's headliner, all P.J. Hairston had to do was outshine a ceremony honoring the jersey of the only Academic All-America of the year in school history, the Patterson Medal (the most prestigious award Carolina gives to a senior student-athlete), two players among the NCAA's 75 top players in NCAA Tournament history, four recent NBA draft picks (each of whom prompted squeals when they walked through the Smith Center tunnel) and a halftime presentation to two of the six living individuals on planet Earth with a retired University of North Carolina basketball jersey.
Oh, and the Virginia defense. Most definitely the Virginia defense--the second-stickiest defense in the country.
That's what happened on a snowy (yes, everything is upside down now in Chapel Hill, as Roy Williams is relying on a guard-heavy lineup and big, fat snowflakes are falling during a mid-February ACC game. Expect cats and dogs to take up residence together anytime now) Saturday at the Smith Center. Tyler Zeller saw his jersey in the rafters. Zeller and field hockey star Katelyn Falgowski accepted the Patterson Medal. Lennie Rosenbluth and Tyler Hansbrough were recognized for their selection as two of the best players in the 75-year history of the NCAA Tournament. John Henson and Kendall Marshall watched from behind the Tar Heel bench.
In sum, the Smith Center had more star power than the Morehead Planetarium. And somehow, still, it was Hairston's day.
P.J., you just scored a career-high 29 points on 8-of-14 shooting, including 6-of-12 from beyond the three-point line. Do you ever start to feel like every single shot is going in?
Cue Hairston, without much of a smile at all: "Actually, I do...I felt like every shot I took in the second half was going in because of how aggressive we were being and how my teammates helped me out."
Let's try to quantify what Hairston--and by extension, the Tar Heel offense--did against Virginia. Since Tony Bennett took over the Cavaliers before the 2009-10 season and installed his methodical attack, the Tar Heels and Wahoos had met five times.
Carolina had made a collective 35.7% of its field goal attempts in those five games, and had never shot better than 37 percent in a single game against a Bennett-coached Virginia team.
Saturday, the Tar Heels shot 49.2% from the field.
Carolina averaged 59.6 points in those five meetings. In the last meeting, back in January, the Tar Heels managed 52 in the entire game.
Saturday, the Tar Heels scored 93 points. They posted 53 in the second half alone, meaning they outscored their previous output against the exact same team in half the time.
Look, I know we all want biscuits. But 93 against Virginia at this point in their program is like 193 against anyone else. We shouldn't just get biscuits. We should get something scattered, smothered and covered for every one of the 20,616 in attendance.
"Everything is easier for us right now because of the way P.J. has been playing," said Marcus Paige, who had the luxury of playing point guard on a day when some of his teammates were scorching. "It opens the lanes Dexter and I have to attack and the space James Michael has to operate with. And then when you make shots, it's easier to go down and play defense with more energy rather than missing shots and getting discouraged."
It's not just the starting lineup that has changed. It's the entire rotation. Big men Brice Johnson, Desmond Hubert and Jackson Simmons played a combined 22 minutes against the Cavaliers (Joel James was out with a concussion). That's just four more than the minutes played by Leslie McDonald, yet another wing with a flair for outside scoring. And Hairston still outrebounded the big man triumvirate, 7 to 5, answering one of his head coach's biggest concerns about the smaller lineup.
In the previous meeting, the Hubert/Johnson/James trio played a combined 38 minutes. As recently as the game at NC State, the post quartet played 47 minutes. That's not just a gradual change throughout a season. That's a dramatic switch in how the Tar Heels are playing.
Saturday was probably the best-case example--against an opponent experiencing some depth issues in the post, and therefore a good matchup for the strategy--for the smaller lineup. It's hard to imagine the Tar Heels could be that prolific again, and there will come a game when they need more size and less wing play.
That day, however, was not Saturday. On a day when it sometimes felt like a three-ring circus--There's a national champion over there! There's someone with his jersey in the rafters over here!--it was Hairston who was the show.
He almost capped it with an encore. With less than 90 seconds remaining, he took a feed from Dexter Strickland in the corner and had a notion to fire one last three-pointer. He loaded, he bent his knees, and the ball was in a shooting position. But his team was already up, 88-78, and he thought better of it.
Eventually, the possession ended with Strickland drawing a foul, and Hairston walking by the Tar Heel bench and exchanging broad grins and a high five with Williams, both seemingly acknowledging that they understood the other--Williams appreciating how hard it was for Hairston to keep his finger off the trigger, and Hairston showing he knew when to subvert his individual goals for the team.
"I really wanted to shoot it," Hairston would say later. "But I was like, 'I'm not even going to be like that.'"
Go ahead, P.J. The Tar Heels need you to be like that any time you want to be.