GREENSBORO, N.C. — North Carolina and its four-guard lineup have a chance at another Atlantic Coast Conference championship — thanks in part to a Maryland guard whose last-gasp shot fell way short.
Dexter Strickland and Reggie Bullock scored 15 points apiece, and the Tar Heels held on to beat the Terrapins 79-76 on Saturday in the league tournament semifinals.
Next up: a meeting Sunday with No. 9 Miami, the tournament’s top seed, with North Carolina’s 18th league tournament title on the line.
The Hurricanes’ regular-season sweep included a humiliating 26-point win last month at Miami that led coach Roy Williams to make P.J. Hairston a starter and play with a smaller, quicker group.
“They haven’t seen us with our new lineup yet,” Bullock said. “We just have to get our face back. They definitely embarrassed us when we went down there … and for us to have the opportunity to play against them on the last night before we go to the NCAA tournament is great.”
Hairston scored 13 points despite a heavily wrapped and injured left (non-shooting) hand for the third-seeded Tar Heels (24-9), but his missed free throw with 16 seconds left gave Maryland a chance to force overtime.
The Terps called time out with 10.9 seconds left, and Logan Aronhalt took the inbounds pass from Nick Faust and immediately launched a 30-foot airball.
Bullock snatched the ball and passed to Hairston, who was alone near midcourt, and the Tar Heels ran out the clock to clinch their league-record 32nd appearance in the title game.
Faust said the plan was to get the ball to Aronhalt — a 44 percent 3-point shooter — with tournament MVP candidate Dez Wells the decoy. The Terps wanted to get a 3-pointer off before the Tar Heels could foul them and send them to the line for two shots.
“It was designed for me to get a 3. I just came off the screen a little too far away from the 3-point line,” Aronhalt said. “The shot was just too deep. … I knew immediately it wasn’t going in.”
Alex Len had 20 points to lead seventh-seeded Maryland (22-12), which knocked off No. 2 Duke less than 24 hours earlier in the quarterfinals and nearly pulled off another upset.
The Terrapins trailed by 10 with just over 7 minutes left before rallying to make things tight down the stretch.
“The amazing thing was that we put ourselves in the position to have that chance,” coach Mark Turgeon said.
But every time they got too close, North Carolina had an answer.
Twice in the final 3 minutes, freshman guard Marcus Paige followed a Maryland basket by hitting a clutch shot of his own.
“He knows what type of shooter he is, and you’re not going to make all your shots,” Strickland said of Paige. “But he fought through it; he stepped up tonight and made some big shots for us.”
Paige’s jumper with 2:49 left came after Len cut the Tar Heels’ lead to 71-70. And after Wells hit a layup to pull the Terps to 75-72 with 1:08 left, Paige drove the baseline for a pretty layup that put North Carolina back up by five with 36.5 seconds left.
He and Wells traded free throws in a 3-second span, and Aronhalt’s stickback with 17.3 seconds left pulled Maryland to 78-76. Hairston then hit 1 of 2 free throws 1.3 seconds later.
Big man James Michael McAdoo also finished with 13 points for the Tar Heels, who improved to 8-2 since inserting Hairston in the starting lineup and playing with four guards.
Their only losses in that span came to a Duke team that had already been knocked out of the tournament by these Terrapins, and now they’ll test themselves against the regular-season champion Hurricanes.
“I know we can play a heck of a lot better,” Williams said. “And we have to (be) a lot better getting ready to play somebody who’s beaten us twice by about 8 million points.”
Faust added 17 points with five 3-pointers for Maryland while Wells — the Xavier transfer who averaged 25.5 points in the wins over Wake Forest and Duke — finished with 15 on 6-of-15 shooting.
He showed some frustration when his reverse layup with about 17 minutes left rimmed out, extending and waving both arms in disbelief.
A few seconds later, Bullock buried a short jumper and the Tar Heels matched their largest lead to that point, 47-35. Their largest lead of the game came with 11:28 left when Leslie McDonald’s free throw made it 58-45.
Hairston finished 3 of 10 and was 2 of 8 behind the 3-point line in 36 minutes — but that he even played at all was remarkable.
He needed eight stitches to close a wound that split the night before against Florida State when the ball jammed between his fingers.
“I thought I was going to die, honestly,” Hairston said. “As soon as the soap and alcohol touched me, I kind of screamed for my life. But after the thing was stitched up, of course it was a little sore. Coming out in warmups, it felt fine.”
He was a game-time decision but warmed up — and started — with the two fingers bound together with a splint and tape covering most of his hand, and he showed no obvious signs of discomfort.
“He’s been a pansy most of the time I’ve known him,” Williams said, “but today he was one tough sucker.”
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