LAHAINA, Hawaii — Sometimes during lighter moments before or after North Carolina practices, P.J. Hairston will carry a ball to the far end of the court and take a few shots from 75 feet or so.
“I knew at some point it was going to go in,” Hairston said here on Monday, after the Tar Heels’ 95-49 victory against Mississippi State in the quarterfinals of the Maui Invitational.
As improbable as it seemed in the moment, that shot did go in for Hairston on Monday at the Lahaina Civic Center. He rebounded a Mississippi State miss, made a quick move, and heaved a shot from near the opposite 3-point line. It bounced off the backboard and fell through the rim while the halftime buzzer sounded, bringing a merciful end to a half that was never competitive.
The kind of shot that Hairston made doesn’t happen often in basketball. Though maybe it should have been expected in that particular situation, given that most everything No. 9 UNC (4-0) attempted during the first half went in.
The Heels, who advanced to play Butler on Tuesday in the Maui Invitational semifinals, had decisively won their first three games despite prolonged stretches of sloppiness that left coach Roy Williams wanting and expecting more. During the first half against Mississippi State (1-2), though, UNC was as crisp as it was dominant.
“I’ve said for a long time that we’re really a good shooting team,” Williams said, reminding others, perhaps, that he knew his team was capable of what it did on Monday.
As faithful as Williams has been in his team’s shooting ability, the Heels let him down during their first two games. Then, after shooting poorly in the first half on Friday night at Long Beach, UNC broke out of its slump in the second half and finished with 10 3-pointers in a 78-63 victory.
The Tar Heels had nearly that many at halftime against the overmatched Bulldogs. UNC’s first points came on a 3-pointer from Reggie Bullock, whose shot propelled the Heels’ early 9-0 lead. Less than eight minutes into the game, UNC led by 20.
Mississippi State never got back in the game. And the Heels seemingly never cooled off from the outside.
Overall, they finished with 15 3s on Monday, eight of them during the first half. The last of those came on Hairston’s buzzer-beater from 75 feet, though the rest of his three 3s came in more traditional fashion.
Hairston, who made just one of his first seven 3-point attempts of the season, finished with 18 points and made four of his seven 3-point attempts on Monday. One of them put UNC ahead 80-38 with about five minutes to play, and Hairston left the game shortly after to a loud cheer from a strong contingent of UNC fans.
Even amid his slow start, Hairston said he didn’t lack for confidence.
“It wasn’t really confidence, it was just focusing more than anything,” he said of his improvement during the past two games. “Because it’s up to me to hit the shots and if I have good shots, shoot them.”
The Heels, who won their 10th consecutive game in the Maui Invitational, followed that philosophy often. Leslie McDonald, who made six of his nine 3-point attempts, led five UNC scorers in double figures with 21 points. Bullock, who finished with four 3-pointers, finished with 16 and James Michael McAdoo and Dexter Strickland finished with 10 points apiece.
The Tar Heels, who forced 21 turnovers, were especially productive in transition. They turned those turnovers into 34 points, and outscored Mississippi State 18-6 on fast-break points.
“It’s just a confidence boost for the outside shooters to run the floor, get steals and just play that type of game,” Bullock said. “Because that’s the Carolina way of playing basketball.”
This, though, was a different style of play than the one UNC had used to this point. The Heels, whose 15 3-pointers were their most since making 16 in a 2009 victory against Maryland, had at times plodded through their first three games.
On Monday, though, UNC was as sharp as it had been all season, even though Williams still found plenty of reasons to be displeased. Williams criticized his team’s rebounding, for one, and UNC’s seven first-half turnovers bothered him.
“But,” he said, “we made shots and everything looked good.”