CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) - Things suddenly look very different for North Carolina.
P.J. Hairston scored a career-high 29 points Saturday in his second straight start as part of the Tar Heels' new four-guard lineup, helping them beat Virginia 93-81 in a game that both teams needed to help solidify their postseason prospects.
Freshman Marcus Paige added 17 for the Tar Heels (17-8, 7-5 Atlantic Coast Conference), who snapped a two-game skid with their best offensive showing in two months.
It was only a week ago that North Carolina lost by 26 at No. 3 Miami for its third loss by at least 18 points. But coach Roy Williams went small at No. 2 Duke on Wednesday night, and his Tar Heels responded by playing with improved energy and taking the Blue Devils to the final minute in a 73-68 loss.
This time, the Tar Heels buried shot after shot from outside and tore through a defense that ranked second nationally by allowing just 52 points per game.
"I think overall since we switched to the lineup, our overall effort level has jumped up another notch," Paige said. "... Our offense just flows better and spacing's better. That combination usually means good things - you play harder, better spacing and more scoring, so it's good."
Virginia (18-7, 8-4) hadn't allowed more than 69 points all year, a total UNC passed with more than 9 minutes left. The Tar Heels ran off eight straight points out of halftime to break open a tie game en route to 53 second-half points, more than UNC managed in last month's meeting (a 61-52 loss) and more than Virginia had allowed in 11 games this year.
North Carolina shot 49.2 percent (29 of 59) and had ACC single-game highs for scoring and 3-pointers (13). North Carolina hadn't scored this often or hit this many 3s since knocking down 13 in a 97-63 win against McNeese State on Dec. 22.
"We're having a good time out there," Hairston said. "You can see it in some of our eyes."
Williams said he sees his team playing harder, too, and sounded willing to stay with the lineup as long as the undersized group continues to rebound. The Tar Heels did that Saturday, taking a 33-24 edge on the glass and getting 13 second-chance points.
"Their new lineup ... is hard to match up with," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "You think they're a little smaller so maybe we can exploit them inside or they won't hurt us on the glass. But they have some long angles to rebound from. They shot a lot of 3s. When they're hitting and you're not doing a whole lot to stop it, it's going to be a long night."
Joe Harris scored a career-high 27 points on 10-for-13 shooting to lead the Cavaliers, who got off to a fast start by making 11 of 13 shots for an early 10-point lead. Virginia finished at 58.5 percent (31 of 53) and hit 12 of 21 from 3-point range (57.1 percent).
But the Tar Heels kept the pressure on, whether by hitting the boards or scoring 16 points off turnovers.
Hairston, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, matched a career-high with 23 points in the Duke loss after getting the start as the 4-man in the small lineup. Williams also shortened his rotation and played primarily with six players that night, but refused afterward to commit to the same against the Cavaliers.
It'll be hard for him to do anything else for now.
Hairston went 8-for-14 from the field and 6-for-12 from behind the arc, where the Tar Heels finished at 13-for-28 (46.4 percent). In addition, Paige and Reggie Bullock each knocked down three 3s.
"I think Carolina is a lot better in their four-guard lineup," Harris said. "I think they showed that against Duke and against us tonight. They really stretch you out and make your 4-man guard a guy like Hairston, who can shoot the ball really well but also put it on the deck."
The Tar Heels took their biggest lead at 83-65 on yet another 3 from Hairston with 5Â½ minutes left.
Virginia got no closer than nine the rest of the way and blew a chance for a key road win that could've helped their NCAA tournament hopes, not to mention a chance for a first-round bye at next month's ACC tournament.