UNC 79, UMD 68: P. J. Hairston, Tar Heel MVP

USA TODAY Sports

When my wife asked after the opening tip last night who the Heels' best player was, I instinctively said, "McAdoo."

This may very well be true. He leads the team in points, rebounds, minutes, and made and attempted field goals. He'd be the highest-drafted Tar Heel in the 2013 Draft. He's still probably the first guy other teams have to plan for. And, until he picked up his second foul with 12:50 left in the first, I'd never realized what a dilemma it could be if he got into foul trouble.

All of these factors probably still point to James Michael as our most dominant player. But when McAdoo and P. J. Hairston both went down with what seemed like pretty significant injuries (both returned within one or two plays) in what seemed like consecutive possessions early in the second half, I found out exactly which player I value most on this team.

When McAdoo's back left him sprawled underneath Maryland's basket, the feeling was, "That really sucks." When Hairston seemed to have hyperextended (or worse) his left knee a play or two before, it was, "We're done. Our season's over." Ending the season on a four-game losing streak flashed as a possibility.

P. J. Hairston is this year's Kendall Marshall.

Harrison Barnes was the phenom, the future superstar, the highest-drafted of our four first-rounders. Tyler Zeller was the league's player of the year. But Marshall was the only truly indispensable player on last year's squad, and it showed after his wrist injury took him out of the Sweet 16.

Hairston is that guy this year--and he was that guy this game.

It wasn't just his game-high 22 points, his personal best 8 rebounds, or his 3 steals. It was how and when he did those things.

Struggling from distance, Hairston repeatedly took it into the heart of the Maryland defense, finishing at the rim, at the foul line, and from mid-range. He was relentless on the boards and getting after loose balls--repeatedly pulling them down in a crowd of Maryland bigs, snatching one from smaller guards and getting fouled, flying over the scorer's table.

Up 16 with 11:45 left, Marcus Paige missed a three, fouled Dez Wells for a three-point play on the other end, and followed with consecutive turnovers on our next two possessions. All of the sudden, a potential 20-point lead was cut to 9 in less than 40 seconds. It was Hairston who took the ball and regained control of the game with a strong drive to the basket.

It is Hairston's confidence and toughness that fuels the rest of this team.

There were other bright spots in the game. Paige's 8-turnover performance was not one of them, but the fact that he didn't get rattled by it was. After being harrassed into consecutive turnovers (again) by Maryland's diamond press, dropping a 13-point lead to 6 in less than 30 seconds, Paige came out of the timeout on the next possession to pure a no-fear three and force a steal on the other end to secure the three-possession advantage the Heels would enjoy the rest of the way.

There was also the three-point defense. If you thought (like I did) that Maryland's 1-for-12 three-point effort in the first meeting was anomalous against a notoriously poor three-point-defending team, their 3-for-23 performance in this one might make you think twice.

There was also Reggie Bullock's pedestrian 19 points, 12 boards, 2 assists, 3 steals line on 75% shooting from the field, 67% from three, and 75% from the line to consider. Or Strickland's 6 assists to 0 turnovers, making his 3.4 assist-turnover ratio 5th-best nationally (ironically tied with Larry Drew II).

But all of this seemed to take a backseat to the force that is #PJBeShootin.

Hairston's ultimate test will come Saturday: a chance to end the season with a win over Duke for the third consecutive year and tie the No. 3 team in the nation for second place in the conference, while going up against the Blue Devils' best defender and hardest cover on College GameDay.

We'll have a Senior Night atmosphere to our advantage--which might help if we had more than one senior to honor, because any Duke fan with a 365-day memory can tell you how one-senior Senior Nights usually end up.

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