GREENSBORO--- As North Carolina took the court for Saturday's ACC Tournament semifinal matchup with Maryland, all eyes were on sophomore wing P.J. Hairston.
Coming off a serious hand injury that he suffered in the second half of Friday night's quarterfinal win over Florida State, there was a high level of uncertainty as to whether Hairston would be able to go against the Terps, which upset second-seeded Duke Friday evening just before UNC took down the Seminoles.
With a heavily-taped protective guard over his injured ring and middle fingers of his left hand, Hairston was again in the starting lineup for UNC and nailed two three-pointers in the early going, helping the Tar Heels briefly build a 12-point lead around the 8:05 mark of the first half.
"After everything was stitched up (Friday night), I mean of course it was a little bit sore," said Hairston shortly after the game. "Last night I got medicine from the trainer and team doctor and they asked me how I felt this morning, and everything felt fine."
Hairston wound up playing a whopping 36 minutes, and the Tar Heels needed every bit of his production.
"I think Hairston playing 36 minutes, first time he's ever heard me say this, but he's a tough sucker," said UNC head coach Roy Williams. "I think his hand bothered him a bit, he was three-for-10 (from the floor) but he had some good looks. But at the same time, I think what he helped us do out on the court was extremely important. I do believe it was a tough performance for him (Hairston)."
For the second straight game the Tar Heels played solid defense early on, holding Maryland to just 10 of 29 shooting (34.5 percent) in the first half, helping negate a 6-3 advantage the Terrapins held on the offensive boards, and a 12-2 advantage they had in points off offensive rebounds.
Although UNC committed just two turnovers over the first 20 minutes and converted Maryland's six turnovers into nine points of their own, the Terrapins refused to quietly go away, rallying to pull within 37-32 at halftime.
Carolina wouldn't allow Maryland to get any momentum early in the second half, as they came out and quickly built the lead back up to double-digits, but then the Terrapins put together an 8-1 run that briefly pulled them within three (60-57).
But UNC kept making shots, as Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald each hit key three-pointers down the stretch to keep Carolina out in front.
However, Maryland, fighting for its postseason lives, put together one more dramatic rally, pulling within three points and taking advantage of missed Tar Heel free throws to have one last chance in the closing seconds.
Fortunately for UNC, Maryland's last-ditch chance to tie airballed, and Carolina walked away with a dramatic 79-76 victory that advances them to the ACC Championship game for the third straight year.
"Well, we feel very fortunate, and we think we played exceptionally well in the second half," said Williams, who watched his team shoot a healthy 46.2 percent over the game's final 20 minutes.
"I was pretty pleased with what we did in the first half," Williams continued. "I thought that the thing that killed us in the first half and continued killing us in the second was points off of offensive rebounds. They had 12 points each half off offensive rebounds."
Bullock and Dexter Strickland led four Tar Heels in double figures with 15 points each, while Hairston and James Michael McAdoo scored 13 each.
Maryland's Alex Len led all scorers with 20 points, mostly in the second half, while Nick Faust added 17 points and Dez Wells 15 points.
"They (Maryland) played harder at times, played smarter at times, but we made some nice plays, made some free throws and did some things in the end that let us win," said Williams. "We are very pleased with the 'W' and know we can play a heck of a lot better."
"Needless to say, I'm very proud of my group," added Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon. "We were dead at the start of the game. We just had no energy whatsoever. We never quit today. We missed a ton of layups and some balls bounced out of our hands to them and led to layups and things. But we just never quit and we had a shot at the buzzer to tie it."
"I couldn't be more proud of our group," Turgeon continued. "We came up a little bit short. Sometimes you don't win on the scoreboard, but you win. And we won today as a program. Our program got better."
Now it's on to Sunday's ACC Championship game for Carolina---the fifth time in 10 seasons since Coach Williams returned to Chapel Hill that the Tar Heels are playing for all the marbles on Selection Sunday.
UNC is 2-2 in those games, winning the 2007 and 2008 titles over N.C. State and Clemson, respectively, while dropping the title game the past two seasons to Duke (2011) and Florida State (2012).
Considering that UNC started off the ACC schedule 0-2 and were widely considered a bubble team as recently as early February, they've come a long way quickly.
And nothing would culminate this team's late-season resurgence more appropriately, while also getting the team's momentum back at a high level heading into the NCAA Tournament, than bringing another conference title to Chapel Hill win a win over the Hurricanes.