GREENSBORO – Exactly one month before Saturday, North Carolina was 6-5 in the Atlantic Coast Conference and a major uncertainty for the NCAA Tournament.
It was only a month ago.
It just feels a lot longer.
The Tar Heels continued their late-season rejuvenation with a thrilling 79-76 victory in the ACC Tournament semifinals against Maryland, marking the final game for the Terrapins in the conference before they jump to the Big Ten next season.
“We’ve had some ups and downs this year. We went through a period where we kind of struggled, and a lot of people doubted us,” North Carolina point guard Marcus Paige said. “But the great thing about that is we stuck together as a team, and we finally started clicking.”
Third-seeded North Carolina (24-9) won for the eighth time in its past nine games and improved to 8-2 when guard P.J. Hairston starts.
The Tar Heels came close to surrendering the lead to the No. 7 seed Terrapins (22-12) but never did.
After leading by double digits in the early portion of the second half, North Carolina let Maryland crawl within three points four separate times in the final 3:38.
“There were two or three times where they made big runs at us, but we had enough in the tank to come back at them,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “It was huge for us.”
Maryland trailed by three points and had the ball on the final possession, but Logan Aronhalt’s 3-point attempt didn’t come close to going in the hoop.
North Carolina guard Reggie Bullock grabbed the errant shot, fired the ball up court and North Carolina was able to milk the clock without incident to qualify for their ACC record 32nd appearance in the conference tournament championship.
Bullock and guard Dexter Strickland each scored 15 points for the Tar Heels, while Hairston and James Michael McAdoo had 13 apiece.
Hairston suffered a serious laceration in North Carolina’s quarterfinals victory against Florida State on Friday and was questionable for the game Saturday.
The cut was on the webbing of his ring and middle fingers on his left hand and ultimately required eight stitches. But with a large wrapping, Hairston played the game without a problem.
“(Friday), I thought I was going to die, honestly,” Hairston said. “I was in the training room with my mom holding my hand. They said, ‘OK, we’re going to clean it out and put stitches on you.’ I was like, ‘OK, it’s not that bad.’ But as soon as the soap and the alcohol touched me, I kind of screamed for my life.”
Hairston said his hand hurt when he woke up Saturday but not so badly that it prevented him from playing.
North Carolina will move on the play Miami, which has won both meetings between the two teams this season.
The first-seeded Hurricanes will be attempting to win the school’s first-ever ACC Tournament championship.
North Carolina hasn’t played Miami with its new lineup, but Williams said the method suits this team.
“(The) smaller lineup has helped us. We’re a better basketball team.” Williams said. “Is it a world beater, and the newest thing that ever happened or the best thing to ever happen? No. (Saturday) we get (outscored on) offensive rebounds, 24-4, so we’ve got some deficiencies there, but it was the best thing for this team.”
Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said his group was exhausted after upsetting Duke on Friday, yet he couldn’t have been more pleased with the Terrapins’ effort.
“I’m really proud of my group,” Turgeon said. “We were dead at the start of the game. We just had no energy whatsoever. ... Sometimes you don’t win on the scoreboard but you win.
“We won (Saturday) as a program. Our program got better.”
The Tar Heels on the other hand, have found a place that didn’t seem attainable only 30 days ago.
Leaving Greensboro with a trophy will cap the Tar Heels’ furious finish to the regular season, Paige said.
“(We have) a chance to play Miami (today), who has beaten us, like Coach said, pretty badly, and have a chance to cut down the nets and be ACC Tournament champions,” Paige said. “Winning an ACC Tournament championship would just be awesome to see the whole season come full circle.”
Nick Piotrowicz can be reached at 407-9952 or firstname.lastname@example.org