Without Reggie Bullock in the lineup for Saturday's battle against No. 20 UNLV, North Carolina had to rely significantly more on key backups P.J. Hairston and Brice Johnson.
Hairston, who is averaging 18.8 minutes per game so far this season, got the starting nod and 32 minutes of action on Saturday, while Johnson, averaging 13.6 minutes an outing, got 15 minutes against UNLV.
"(Hairston) had 32 minutes. He played a few more minutes than he's been playing. He's been playing 20, 21 a lot of times," said head coach Roy Williams after the game.
Upon telling Hairston that he would be making the start in place of Bullock, Williams told P.J., 'You don't have to be anybody else. Just be yourself."
And while Williams lost his cool with both Hairston and Johnson at times on Saturday, each of them were vital cogs in the Carolina win, combining for 27 points on 11-of-18 shooting to come in as two of UNC's five players in double figures in the 79-73 victory.
The duo added a combined eight rebounds and seven steals---more steals than the rest of the UNC roster put together in this particular game.
"It's the happiest I've ever seen Coach after a game this season, so it was great," Hairston said. "He's proud of us, but we still have some things we need to work on defensively and offensively. But we're only getting better, so it's up to us to work on the things we need to work on."
"We're trying to start over, have a new season now starting (with the UNLV game). So we wanted to turn it up and play hard. That's what we needed to do," added Johnson.
"The coaches have been telling us that you can't coach effort, but they've been coaching us the whole time, so we just had to turn it up."
When breaking down Hairston and Johnson strictly from a scoring perspective, the numbers clearly show that the Tar Heels are more likely to score points when they're on the court.
While Carolina's two leading scorers, James Michael McAdoo and Bullock, are averaging 0.51 and 0.49 points per minute, respectively, when they're in the game, both Hairston and Johnson are doing significantly better, each averaging 0.65 points per minute on the court.
Hairston is doing slightly better than Johnson, averaging 0.659 points per minute to Johnson's 0.654, but the fact remains that when they're in the game, UNC is more prone to find the basket.
In fact, if Hairston maintained the same points-per-minute average playing the same amount of time as McAdoo (McAdoo averages 9.8 minutes more per game than Hairston), Hairston would be averaging 18.8 points per game, which would easily lead Carolina and would currently rank third in the Atlantic Coast Conference, behind only Virginia Tech's Erick Green (24.4 ppg) and Duke's Mason Plumlee (19.5 ppg).
While that alone may not merit Hairston becoming a regular starter---his 38.3 percent field goal percentage is second-worst among major UNC contributors, behind only Marcus Paige's 35.5 percent---the way he played defense against the Rebels is certainly one of the things that could earn him a lot more action as the season goes on.
That also goes for his offensive rebounding, as he had a couple of key boards and putbacks that helped Carolina stay in control of the game.
"I think he (Hairston) did some good things for us defensively. One time on the break P.J. stepped in and took a charge, so he did some good things," Williams said. "P.J. had four steals and two offensive rebounds, and I think both of them were baskets."
"Knowing for me that Reggie is one of the best defenders on the team, I knew I had to step up defensively to make up for Reggie being out," Hairston added.
"I had to pick it up on both ends. On the offensive end like getting to the offensive boards, and (defensively) taking charges and getting steals. I just wanted to pick it up on the defensive end and be here for my team, help my team."
For Johnson, who leads UNC with a 63.2 percent shooting average, Saturday's game was an intriguing story of spurts, as he played brilliantly at times and then completely lost it in other moments.
This inconsistency, more than anything else, explains why Johnson isn't playing more right this moment.
But the rookie's really good moments---like when he came in and scored eight points on a perfect four-for-four shooting with two offensive rebounds in six minutes of first half action against UNLV---seem to overshadow some of the lesser moments, like when he didn't completely hustle, threw a casual inbounds pass off a made basket that got stolen, or a lazy lob on a fast break that became another turnover.
"I didn't run back---I was jogging---so he (Williams) got on me about that. And I was upset with myself about turning it over, and back-to-back mistakes," Johnson said. "He (Williams) told me to forget about it and calm down and just keep playing."
Johnson wisely deferred to Coach Williams when talking about his minutes, but added that he's going to try his best to step up his intensity and better follow Williams' advice when he is on the court.
"I have no clue (about playing time). It's up to Coach. He's the one that makes the decision. Whatever he does with my playing time, I'm going to go in there and play hard," Johnson said. "Wherever he feels comfortable. I can't tell you what he's thinking, but I just know when he calls me I just go in there and play."
Johnson's ability to get high percentage shots off the pass, as well as creating his own scoring opportunities either in transition or along the offensive glass, are proving helpful as he makes the most of his minutes to produce offensively for Carolina.
"Coach always says, when you're a post player go high and look low, so we've been working on that consistently," he said.
What was perhaps even more impressive about the numbers Hairston and Johnson put up were those moments during Saturday's game when each of them seemed to take over.
For a young Carolina team still searching for its true identity, it can't be understated how huge it was that Hairston and Johnson stepped up the way they did.
Whether it was Hairston scoring twice while drawing a charge and getting a steal on defense during one key run late in the second half, or Johnson coming in during the first half and making three baskets in a span of three minutes, each of them seem to have moments when they come alive and can be legit go-to guys for the Tar Heels.
Finding the consistency to do it game in and game out is now the key for both of them.
They can't say now they're no longer completely inexperienced. Hairston has a year under his belt, and now both of them have 13 games this season.
With the ACC opener next Sunday at Virginia now looming, Hairston and Johnson need to each build off Saturday's solid individual performances and take it into practice this week as they prepare for the meat of the winter schedule.
"This is a big win. The team hasn't shown up all year against big teams. We needed this win basically just to build momentum. We feel great. We've just got to take it from here into the ACC and play that way," Hairston said.