P.J. Hairston, a 6-foot-5 freshman shooting guard from Greensboro, N.C., once scored 52 points in a high-school basketball game, and from that point on it was pretty much inevitable that he would end up someplace like Chapel Hill, playing college ball for a team that is not supposed to lose. It’s a storybook existence, so long as you don’t mind being the dragon.
“Everyone wants to play against North Carolina,” Hairston said after UNLV had upset his top-ranked Tar Heels 90-80 in Saturday night’s finals of the Las Vegas Invitational at the Orleans Arena. “We [wear] a target.”
The game had ended 30 minutes earlier. UNLV fans, despite futile warnings from the public-address announcer, had rushed the floor. Rebel players had lingered on the hardwood, collecting hugs and fist-bumps and Richter-scale good vibrations.
Hairston, meanwhile, was sitting at his locker in full uniform, long after most of his teammates had showered and donned suits and ties and left the room in fine corporate-Goliath style. He’d just matched All-American Tar Heel forward Harrison Barnes for a team-high 15 points, including three 3-pointers, and he was perfectly miserable.
Here was just what every good program needs in a young star: The old soul who won’t put a loss behind him until he’s processed its lessons.
“They wanted it more,” Hairston said of the Rebels. “You could tell by the way they were playing. They were far more aggressive. They started out the second half with a 14-0 run. They hit everything they took. They just wanted it more; they beat us in everything.”
Take rebounds, for instance: The Tar Heels’ starting front line measured 7-foot, 6-foot-11 and 6-foot-8, but UNLV out-rebounded North Carolina, 48-39. There are several explanations for such a statistic, but the one that stuck with Hairston and Tar Heel coach Roy Williams after the game was desire. While Williams praised the Rebels’ intensity, Hairston focused on what the Tar Heels were missing, and tried to find some educational value in the first loss of his young career.
“It’s a wake-up call for us,” he said. “We needed this. Now, when we play against a good team, we’ll have a lot more heart, and we’ll want it more.”
But there was something hollow in the words, as if in his admirable search for meaning Hairston had found only a platitude. The Tar Heels had not looked past the Rebels; they had not come out flat; they had battled and pressed and sent Rebels flying to the floor. The Tar Heels may go about their business in workmanlike style, but they bring a sledgehammer with them. And they knew the Rebels were a dangerous foe.
“I knew we had a battle on our hands before the game,” Hairston said. “Coach told us this wasn’t going to be a walkover. They’re the toughest team we’ve played all year.”