Nothing about what North Carolina’s microwave scorer P.J. Hairston did Tuesday night caught Steve Donahue by surprise.
The Boston College coach knew Hairston’s McDonald’s All-American résumé. He knew Hairston was averaging 15 points in his past four games. He knew he had the kind of range that meant you had to defend him as soon as he crossed halfcourt.
“You’re talking about a kid when I saw him in high school I thought he was an NBA player,” Donahue said.
Hairston stepped on the floor at Conte Forum about four minutes into the Tar Heels’ Atlantic Coast Conference matchup with Boston College, and barely a minute later he took a feed from freshman point guard Marcus Paige and rocked into an NBA-range catch-and-shoot 3-pointer like it was a free throw-line jumper.
He drilled another from in front of the BC bench, then he hit another practically from the Eagles’ logo at halfcourt, and Donahue knew he had a one-man scoring spree to deal with.
“Any time a kid can shoot that far out, it’s a threat,” Donahue said. “I thought we let him loose early and then he gets two or three more right in a row and he’s confident. We gave him some air and he made us pay for it.”
Hairston had 14 points in the first 12 minutes, but he wasn’t able to walk off the floor after North Carolina’s 82-70 win.
With four minutes left in the first half, Hairston crashed into teammate Dexter Strickland as they tried to keep Patrick Heckmann from driving to the rim. On the way down, Hairston landed back-first along the baseline and his head bounced off the hardwood.
He stayed down as teammates, coaches, trainers, and eventually his mother all surrounded him.
It appeared he would be able to walk on his own power, but he took a few woozy steps before crumpling to the floor again. Ultimately, he had to be carted off on a stretcher and later was diagnosed with a concussion.
The crowd of 7,062, specked with a number of Carolina-blue shirts, gave him an ovation.
“It’s scary any time that that happens to any of the players whether it’s on our team or another team,” said BC’s Ryan Anderson. “Everyone loves the game out there and no one wants to see anyone get hurt. It definitely goes through your mind, but I think as soon as the ball was inbounded again you have to move on. You pray for him, but you move on to the game.”
At the half, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams, who had been critical of his team after a loss to North Carolina State over the weekend, said if there was a time to pull together, this was it.
“Well, basically the old cliche is one of our guys is home and now one of our guys is down laying on the training table, so we have to pull together even harder,” Williams said. “That’s an old cliche and it’s coach talk, but I believe it’s true. Everybody’s got to step up and play a little bit better than they did in the first half.”
With junior guard Leslie McDonald still in Chapel Hill nursing an injury, the Tar Heels indeed took a next-man up approach.
James Michael McAdoo put up a 17-point, 10-rebound effort, Strickland added 14 points, knocking down all six of his free throw attempts, and the Tar Heels, shooting more 3s this season than at any other point under Williams, knocked down 54 percent of their shots from long range to wipe the sour taste out of their mouths.
And when they returned to their locker room after the win, Hairston was there to greet them.
“Emotionally for us, it just meant that everybody’s got to be able to pull together,” said guard Reggie Bullock. “We saw one of our soldiers go down, so as an army we’ve got to pull together and keep fighting.”
The Eagles had to deal with their fifth straight loss, struggling to stop Carolina from getting out in transition and finding it hard to match their fight in the paint.
“We knew what they liked to do offensively was get out in transition, use their quickness offensively and defensively,” said Anderson, who scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds. “We weren’t really surprised by it but we didn’t match their toughness in the paint as well.”
A game against Carolina, no matter how much it is perceived to be struggling, wasn’t exactly the best way to come home after a rough stretch on the road, and Donahue said the challenge now will be snapping the losing streak before it starts to eat at his team’s confidence.
“This league’s really hard no matter what for a young group,” Donahue said. “We had our chances to win those games. My job is to make sure we don’t lose our focus because of frustration because you’re losing.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org