UNC’s Hairston back to feeling normal again

GREENSBORO, N.C. — P.J. Hairston was all smiles Thursday before North Carolina’s public workout at the Greensboro Coliseum.

He sat in front of his locker with a glow illuminating his face as the media descended upon the Tar Heels spread around their locker room. Hairston is happy because he feels normal again. He feels like the guy who helped the Heels earlier in the season by draining perimeter shots. That guy had tons of fun, and finally the pleasure of the game has returned.

A freshman from right here in Greensboro, Hairston converted 17 of his first 35 3-point attempts of the season, including 3 of 4 in a one-point loss at Kentucky. He flared up to hit 4 of 9 in a win over Monmouth on New Year’s Day, but from that point to before last Sunday’s ACC championship game loss to Florida State, Hairston was 9-for-55, including a stretch of six consecutive games in which he failed to sink a perimeter shot.

Hairston, who is right handed, injured his left wrist in November, which eventually affected his shot. The left hand essentially balances the ball so it never touches the palm of the shooter. But not long after the UK game, Hairston’s stroke fell apart and he began pushing the ball and worse.

“When I first came back for the Kentucky game it felt fine, but then it got sore after that,” he explained, “I tried not to sue this hand at all, and a lot of times I shot one handed. Didn’t take my time because I just wanted to get the shot off.”

Seniors Tyler Zeller and Justin Watts regularly encouraged Hairston that the shot would fall again as long as he continued pushing forward. And it did in a big way last Sunday against the Seminoles.

The 6-foot-5 Hairston, who averages 5.9 points per game, drained three 3-pointers in a short span Sunday to end the most frustrating stretch of basketball in his life. And along with giving UNC needed points, the rest of Hairston’s game came together.

Carolina coach Roy Williams joked Sunday that Hairston’s defense suddenly improved after he found his stroke. Hairston says there’s something to that.

“I guess when you hit 3s like that and start hitting big shots for the team it builds up adrenalin and affects you everywhere on the court,” he said. “Once I hit those 3s I tried to do everything on the court and just zoned (in).”

Defense is something Hairston admittedly didn’t like playing in high school. He treated it as a necessary evil, but only some of the time. Excelling on that end of the court will get a player more action, especially if a player’s stroke is off. He knew he had to step it up defensively.

Playing off the ball has been his most notable improvement. Ball-you-man defense is one thing in high school, it’s altogether something else in college.

“That’s where communication comes in because you never know if you have three people on the baseline and you’re one of the help men,” said Hairston, whose family house is 10 minutes from the Coliseum. “And when somebody slides over you have to help the helper. It’s the little things you do that can help the team… Those things you have to do.”

Now if he can just combine the defense with his pre-wrist injury touch from November, top-seeded UNC (Midwest Region) would have the spark off the bench it’s lacked since Reggie Bullock replaced injured guard Dexter Strickland in the starting lineup.

Sitting relaxed and enjoying the interaction with the scribes, Hairston wore the look of relief, that a significant obstacle is behind him and he can breathe easy.

“I feel pretty confident,” he said. “And now I know if I get a good look I’m pretty confident it’s going to go in. Not that my confidence was low, but I kind of questioned myself every time I shot it. I didn’t want to miss one and then be wide open the next time and wonder if I should even shoot the shot.

“Now, I want the ball because I know I’m going to make my next shot.”