In case North Carolina fans had any illusions about where their team stood on the NCAA tournament bubble, those were undoubtedly shattered Friday when the writers who took part in this year's mock selection process released their bracket.
The Tar Heels were not among the 68 teams in the field.
Fueled by the desire to improve its position and snap a two-game losing streak Saturday afternoon, North Carolina earned one of its most noteworthy victories this season. The Tar Heels buried fellow bubble team Virginia in a hail of 3-pointers, erasing an early 10-point deficit and pulling away in the second half to emerge with a 93-81 victory.
The decision to go to a smaller lineup with wing P.J. Hairston starting at power forward continued to pay off for the Tar Heels (17-8, 7-5).
Hairston followed up a 23-point performance against Duke on Wednesday night by erupting for 29 against Virginia, the most any North Carolina player has scored in a single game this season. He not only buried six 3-pointers but also got to the free throw line off the dribble, raising the question why Roy Williams didn't make the lineup switch sooner considering how unproductive his young big men have been.
It wasn't just Hairston who enabled North Carolina to avenge last month's 61-52 loss in Charlottesville though.
Marcus Paige and Dexter Strickland combined for 29 points, nine assists and just three turnovers, a fine performance by North Carolina's two ball-handling guards. The Tar Heels also sank 13 of 28 3-pointers -- 7 of 11 in the second half alone -- to turn a tie game at halftime into an 18-point lead with five minutes to play.
That a home win over Virginia (18-7, 8-4) is probably North Carolina's second-biggest win of the season is a huge reason the Tar Heels are still in jeopardy of missing the NCAA tournament.
They're a respectable fourth place in the ACC, but they're just 1-6 against the RPI Top 50, the lone victory at home against UNLV. The remaining schedule isn't especially favorable either with road games left against Georgia Tech, Clemson and Maryland and home tests remaining against NC State, Duke and Florida State.
A 4-2 finish against that schedule would give North Carolina a great chance to make the NCAA tournament regardless of how it fares in ACC tournament play. Anything short of that, however, and the Tar Heels will be in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the second time in four years.
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