GREENSBORO--With four minutes and 13 seconds left, every bit of drama moved from the Greensboro Coliseum court to a back hallway, outside the view of the crowd that was listed as simply "sellout" in the final box score.
The ACC Tournament quarterfinal between Carolina and Florida State was still being played, and the Tar Heels put the final touches on an 83-62 victory that moves them into a semifinal game against Maryland on Saturday. Quietly, Carolina played very well, throttling the Seminoles by 21 points for the second time in two weeks.
It's unlikely the victory will get much discussion on Saturday morning. Because for the second straight game in Greensboro, it didn't feel like the game's major storyline was on the court. Last time Carolina was here--exactly 362 days ago--the Tar Heels beat Creighton in the NCAA Tournament but spent the postgame worrying (with good reason, it turned out) about the condition of Kendall Marshall's wrist.
This time, it's true that P.J. Hairston scored 21 points and Marcus Paige had a career-high 10 assists, but the real story was the bizarre injury to Hairston's hand. The sophomore knew immediately something was wrong, as he held up his non-shooting hand to show the Tar Heel bench, and walked purposefully toward trainer Chris Hirth.
Players have usually seen enough basketball that they have an inherent sense of when an injury is bad. Leslie McDonald knew immediately when Dexter Strickland went down at Virginia Tech last season that his knee injury was probably serious.
This was not one of those. In fact, as Hairston walked to the Carolina bench, Brice Johnson held up his right hand to give him a high-five. Then the freshman got a closer look, and...
"I went to give him a high-five," Johnson said. "Then I saw his hand, and I was like, 'Ohhhhhh.'"
At that point, things happened quickly.
A bench pass was handed back into the stands to Dr. Tom Brickner, the Carolina team physician who was seated just behind the UNC bench. Dr. Brickner and Hirth looked at the hand, and soon Hairston was walking back to the Tar Heel locker room.
Really, there was no point in watching the final four minutes. The story was in the back hallway of the Coliseum. It wasn't too hard to track Hairston down. It's not a short walk from the court to the locker room. To get there, Hairston and his escorts had to walk up four steps, bend around a hallway to the right, make another left turn, and then back into the series of rooms where Marshall was evaluated last year.
The faces of the security guards told you exactly which way Hairston had gone. Those who had seen his hand looked a little weak. It was the kind of injury that made you wince just in hearing the re-telling. Just as one bystander was describing how it looked--you don't want to hear about it--a loud voice came from behind: "Did he come this way?"
The voice belonged to another security guard with a very sizable bottle of disinfectant. He was there to clean up the blood in the hallway.
At just that moment, it looked like it might be the second straight win in Greensboro that felt more like a loss. But the Carolina locker room was very different than the mood after the win over Creighton. That was a fracture. This was a cut--a very weird, painful cut that required eight stitches, but still a cut.
Williams was cautious in the postgame.
"We're extremely concerned right now," the head coach said. "His hand is torn up...I have no idea (about Saturday) and I won't have any idea."
This is how it's been for the last year for Carolina: when Williams was asked about his plans for the semifinals if Hairston couldn't play, he replied, "We could play Marcus at power forward."
Not one single person laughed at the moment Williams said it. There was just a beat when, given the fact that Carolina played the regional final last year with Justin Watts as the backup point guard, you wondered if maybe the 6-foot-0, 157-pound Paige could actually learn how to play in the post. Well, he's undersized, you thought, but Coach Williams thinks he's "a tough little nut," so maybe this could work after all...
But then Williams chuckled just a little, about as much as any coach can who has just watched one of his best outside shooters leave the game due to injury after being scalding hot--for the second time this season. At Boston College, Hairston was 4-for-4 from the three-point line before leaving with a concussion. Against the Seminoles, he'd already dropped through a game-high 21 points. It was a hot 21, not built by being left open and hitting easy shots, but by elevating and shooting over defenders from distance.
The coach admitted "conventional wisdom" suggested that if Hairston couldn't play on Saturday, the Tar Heels would return to their bigger lineup. This wasn't Creighton. On that occasion, Carolina had nearly a full week to practice, consider the options and prepare a plan. This time, there will be approximately 15 hours from the coach's postgame press conference to the scheduled tipoff.
Carolina and Maryland will play an ACC semifinal on Saturday afternoon around 3 p.m. It should be entertaining. The Terps are playing well, they need to win to feel great about their NCAA Tournament chances and the Greensboro crowd is likely to be lively.
It promises to be a fun afternoon. As long as all the drama stays on the court.