Hairstons quick trigger has kept defenses on alert

How long can it last? North Carolina’s six-game winning streak now feels less like disaster prevention and more like a genuine run. The Tar Heels (12-5 ACC, 22-8 overall) continue to grow into their new lineup and perimeter-friendly offense, dispatching Maryland 79-68 in College Park last night.

No one expected it would prove so easy. Maryland beat Duke (without Ryan Kelly) on its home court this season and entered the UNC contest as a slim favorite. But apart from a turnover binge during one ugly second half sequence, the Heels refused to cede control even on Maryland’s home court, establishing a double-digit lead and shooting the Terps out of the game.

Circumstances appeared stacked against the Tar Heels: They traveled to a hostile environment where they’ve struggled in years past; against an opponent desperate for another good win; with rowdy fans pregame lubricating in inclement weather; where everyone realizes Maryland soon will depart the ACC for the Big Ten; and with the making of a trap game due to Saturday night’s Duke showdown.

But Reggie Bullock and P.J. Hairston carried the day. Bullock has pieced together a first-team all-conference worthy season, adding another 19 points, 10 rebounds, two assists and three steals versus the Terps. The ultra-efficient junior shot 6-for-8 from the field and committed just one of UNC’s 12 turnovers while playing 37 minutes.

Hairston, meanwhile, lacks Bullock’s sound judgment but brings the team a physical edge. He scored 22 points and added eight rebounds of his own, and his defense in the small lineup while matched against far bigger players has spurred the turnaround.

That duo performed so dominantly that UNC could withstand a very poor outing from James Michael McAdoo. Clearly, these Tar Heels must receive better play from their only viable big man, who scored 10 points on 3-for-11 from the floor.

Defensively, UNC suppressed Maryland to 43 percent shooting. But Carolina’s defense may not be quite as good as it has appeared recently — and especially on the road — because Maryland missed numerous open shots to convert just 3-for-23 on three-pointers. Will Duke follow suit? Safe to say, probably not.

Eyeing the primetime tilt versus the Blue Devils, the game stands out both for what it represents and what it doesn’t. Carolina doesn’t need the victory to make the NCAA Tournament, which is now a given. The Tar Heels also secured a bye past the first round of the ACC Tournament, so that’s also off the table.

Perhaps the outcome will slot where it always does when the archrivals square off, somewhere cemented in the minds of fans on both sides, but there’s also greater symbolic value for Carolina.

For one thing, the most recent shot taken by Duke at the Smith Center resulted in a highlight that has become pervasive and unwelcome within the UNC fanbase. Last February, freshman Austin Rivers buried a deep three as time expired to lift Duke to a stirring upset win.

Even more than getting revenge for last month’s defeat at Cameron — which Roy Williams used as a stalking horse to make a permanent lineup change — placing the Rivers debacle into the background stands out as a priority.

Further, this matchup reminds me of 1997. That year, in Dean Smith’s final season as head coach, Carolina began its ACC campaign with three consecutive losses and appeared vulnerable to an NIT appearance. The Heels demonstrated improvement in a competitive loss at Duke, then won 16 consecutive games en route to a Final Four appearance. Sounds like a familiar setup, right?

The Heels had begun to roll through ACC opponents prior to the rematch, but you got the sense their streak wouldn’t be legitimized unless they prevailed over Duke to close the regular season. They accomplished just that — despite an extremely hot Blue Devil club that day — and won another seven games to close Smith’s career.

So Carolina needs to win this game a little more than it typically does. This win streak is equal parts inspiring and fragile, and asking a Roy Williams team to generate momentum during the ACC Tournament — or, “a great cocktail party,” as he dismissively terms it — may be unrealistic.

Not like anyone needed extra incentive to watch the game, anyway. See you Saturday night.