Resurgent North Carolina awaits No. 25 Pitt
It took more than the loss of P.J. Hairston to snap North Carolina's players to attention. In fact, it took a 1-4 start in the ACC before the Tar Heels finally turned their season around.
Hairston's dismissal in December for using rental cars linked to a convicted felon was only the start. The Tar Heels struggled to replace Hairston's perimeter scoring — his 89 3-pointers the previous season were the second most in school history.
Led by sophomore point guard Marcus Paige and junior forward James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina (16-7, 6-4) carries a five-game conference winning streak into Saturday's 1 p.m. game against No. 25 Pitt (20-5, 8-4) at Smith Center.
It's the teams first meeting since November 1996 and comes at a critical time for the Panthers following their last-second 58-56 loss to No. 1 Syracuse.
“Pitt's won more games than we have,” McAdoo said Friday. “They're ranked in the top 25. We're not. They have great senior leadership, and they're used to playing in hostile environments.”
North Carolina hasn't played since a 73-62 win at Notre Dame on Feb. 8. Wednesday's game against Duke was postponed until Feb. 20 due to bad weather.
“We are playing with a greater sense of urgency,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “It's not just playing hard, diving on the floor. It's mental and physical aspects of the game. That's been the biggest positive for us.”
Losing Hairston hurt. Similar to Pitt's attempts to replace sophomore sharpshooter Durand Johnson, lost for the season with a torn ACL, North Carolina faced a greater challenge because Hairston led the team in scoring last season.
Paige and McAdoo combined to replace Hairston's scoring. Paige leads North Carolina in scoring and assists. He averages 35.7 minutes per game, more than any player in the Williams' era. McAdoo is second on the team in scoring.
“We finally realized he wasn't going to be here,” McAdoo said of Hairston. “Coach Williams is always telling us to play with a sense of urgency, but we definitely weren't playing to our capabilities. When we do what he asks, it goes a whole lot smoother.”
Williams said losing Hairston forced him to create new roles for Paige and McAdoo.
“Marcus Paige has been the catalyst and has been playing very well,” Williams said.
“James Michael McAdoo has played so aggressively and so hard. His sense of urgency has been way up there in the last three weeks (and) has been huge for us.”
John Harris is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @jharris_trib.
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