UNC may have found best lineup in Duke loss

DURHAM, N.C. — Roy Williams will never admit that fans or the media may have been justified in their criticism of how he was handling a particular situation. And in the end, it really doesn’t matter.

North Carolina fans clamoring for some kind of mea culpa from the Hall of Fame coach are going to wait for a long time, because it isn’t happening.

But, those who wanted sophomore P.J. Hairston to get a lot more playing time and for Williams to trim to rotation were right, and it’s likely how UNC will play moving forward.

So, whatever Williams did, or didn’t do, shouldn’t matter anymore.

The Tar Heels, with Hairston starting alongside fellow wing Reggie Bullock for the first time this season, were an interesting and exciting-at-times team in their 73-68 loss at No. 2 Duke on Wednesday night.

The Heels were fast and quick, played with energy and two things really stood out in their overall abilities: Carolina (16-8, 6-5 ACC) is a better, more fluid offensive team with this look, and it can defend the perimeter given the composition of its lineup.

When going small, which was the case with the 6-foot-6 Hairston getting the nod over 6-9 Desmond Hubert, and also playing 34 minutes — 18 more than his average in ACC games — Hairston was essentially the missing link to what has ailed UNC for so much of the season.

Defensively, the Tar Heels locked down pretty well on Duke’s perimeter. The Blue Devils entered the game leading the ACC by converting nearly 41 percent of their 3-point attempts. But UNC, which has been a disaster defending beyond the arc at times, including last Saturday’s 26-point loss at Miami (15 triples for the ‘Canes), limited Duke to 6-for-16 from three-point range.

Against Carolina, Duke made just one of four three-pointers in the opening half, with no Blue Devil attempting more than one. Senior Seth Curry, in particular, struggled early on for Duke.

“They switched a lot of stuff,” Curry said. “They were real aggressive with me, kind of stunting — when I was putting it on the floor they collapsed a little bit and I had to find ways to score. I kept chugging along, not get done and I finally made some big shots in the second half.”

UNC did an excellent job making Curry take uncomfortable shots. He struggled getting into a rhythm because his shots didn’t come in the usual manner. Carolina rotated defenders on him, usually forcing him to out the ball on the floor.

Duke also had just three assists and 11 turnovers in the half, tying its season average.

While overall, Duke shot 44.6 percent from the floor, UNC’s stout play in the opening half gave it needed confidence it could compete with the Devils in their hallowed hall.

North Carolina wasn’t exactly a juggernaut offensively, but it was pretty efficient in stretches. The Tar Heels essentially started four guards, although 6-7 junior Reggie Bullock was designated as UNC’s Four-man. But he was everywhere on the floor, and it created some matchup problems in Carolina’s favor.

The x-factor was Hairston, who came in averaging 13.7 points in ACC play, even though he was only playing 16.8 minutes in conference games. Also, entering the contest, Hairston had scored 70 points in his previous 77 minutes on the floor, so it was not a great surprise to see the aggressive Greensboro native net 23 points in 34 minutes against the Devils.

“I got comfortable when we added P.J. in the lineup,” Bullock said. “He brings another scoring ability, offensive rebounder. He’s just another player I feel comfortable playing with. For coach to put him in the lineup to give us an extra shooting in the starting five, it was a great idea.”

After the game, Williams had given thought to starting Hairston for the last “four or five” games, and made the move here because he felt it gave his team an edge, figuring Duke had to put a slower forward on Hairston.

Still, when Williams was pressed about the lineup, he got a bit testy. And keep in mind, on Monday he indicated no changes were coming and the five that had been starting were his best five.

“I was trying to win the daggum game,” Williams said. “I don’t make decisions based on how many minutes a guy has played. I am going to play the guys that I want at the specific time. I may play five guys 40 minutes Saturday (against Virginia).”

UNC was only 5-of-18 on three-pointers and shot just 37.9 percent for the game. But there’s no denying it was a more fluid team and the unit that spent the most time on the court gives Carolina the best chance to become a viable NCAA Tournament team.

And even in defeat to its most bitter rival, that’s a major positive UNC and its hundreds of thousands of couch-potato coaches should take from this game.