GREENSBORO More than once during the past three months, North Carolina coach Roy Williams questioned his teams toughness and challenged his players manhood, all hoping they might one day be resilient enough to handle the tensest of situations like the ones the Tar Heels experienced on Saturday.
North Carolinas 79-76 victory against Maryland in the ACC tournament semifinals at the Greensboro Coliseum might have represented the Tar Heels grittiest performance of the season, and it was one that even caused Williams to celebrate his players fortitude.
In the beginning, sophomore guard P.J. Hairston personified the Tar Heels ability to withstand. Hairston suffered a laceration on his left hand on Friday night during North Carolinas victory against Florida State. The cut was so deep it required eight stitches, and his status was in doubt.
In my head, I knew I was going to play, he said on Saturday.
And play he did, with his left hand heavily taped and bandaged. At times during the first half, Hairston gave North Carolina (24-9) its only offense. Nine of his 13 points came during the first 20 minutes.
Today he was one tough sucker, Williams said.
He could have been talking about his team as a whole. For long stretches this season, the Tar Heels didnt play with the toughness or urgency Williams wanted. They displayed both in the second half on Saturday, though, and withstood Marylands continuous charges.
North Carolina led by as many as 13 with about 11 minutes to play. But the Terrapins (22-12) whittled their deficit to one point with about three minutes remaining.
Then Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels freshman point guard, made a momentum-swinging jump shot, and he made another a short runner on the baseline with a minute to play. The second one came after the Terrapins had cut North Carolinas lead back down to three.
Huge, senior guard Dexter Strickland said of Paiges shots.
Trailing by three points with about 20 seconds left, Maryland had a chance to tie the game. But after a timeout with 11 seconds to play, Logan Aronhalt, the Terrapins senior guard, rushed a long 3-pointer that wasnt close.
North Carolina ran down the clock from there and celebrated a win that might have been a defeat months ago, before the Tar Heels learned to play with the kind resiliency that Williams appreciates.
After North Carolina built that 13-point lead, Maryland kept cutting into its deficit. The Tar Heels, led by 15 points each from Strickland and Reggie Bullock, never relinquished.
We just knew that we had to pull through, Bullock said. We dug ourselves in this hole. We were up 12, 10, basically the whole game. We just had to show that we were mentally tough coming down the stretch to be able to get a stop.
For the third consecutive season, North Carolina advanced to the ACC tournament championship game, where it will play against Miami on Sunday. The Hurricanes dealt the Tar Heels their most crushing loss of the season a 26-point defeat in Coral Gables that called into question the Tar Heels direction and character.
It was really hard, just seeing them throwing (an alley-oop) off the backboard and celebrating and stuff like that, Leslie McDonald, the Tar Heels junior guard, said . No player wants to see that we always had that picture in our mind, and now we get a chance to go back and play them again.
North Carolinas 26-point loss at Miami was embarrassing and humiliating, but it also led to change. It was inside the dejected locker room afterward when Williams began to think that a smaller, four-guard starting lineup might give his team its best chance.
The strategy worked: Since going small, the Tar Heels are undefeated against teams other than Duke.
That was a point in the season where they beat us pretty badly, Paige said of the defeat at Miami. And we had to decide: Are we going to fold as a team, or are we going to come together, try to get better?
If Hairston personified his teams toughness early on Saturday, it was Paige who did it late. All eight of Paiges points came in the second half, and his final five points came after he returned to the game, carrying four fouls and with less than four minutes to play.
Weve seen him grow up, James Michael McAdoo, North Carolinas sophomore forward, said of Paige.
And in some ways, the same could be said of the Tar Heels, who will play Miami for the third time this season. In the first of those meetings, in January in the Smith Center, the Hurricanes took advantage of North Carolinas defensive lapses during their 68-59 victory.
The second time, in Coral Gables, the game was so lopsided late that Miami attempted to turn it into a highlight show with the alley-oop off the backboard.
The way I felt during the game is that we had no control over anything, Williams said.
The players, meanwhile, questioned things, too.
We knew we had to definitely change things, and things couldnt keep going the way they were, McAdoo said. Because they werent going well. And that loss hurt. The biggest thing was we didnt even show up to compete. They just kind of hit us in the mouth, and we just took it.
So now comes a rematch, for the league title, the day after North Carolina perhaps played with more toughness than it has all season toughness it acquired, in part, because of the humiliation it experienced last month in South Florida.