CHAPEL HILL — Earlier in his career, before he became a prime-time player for the North Carolina basketball team, Theo Pinson was known more for crashing coach Roy Williams’ press conferences than he was for is play on the court.
Monday, as the senior guard took center stage alongside classmate Joel Berry to talk about his upcoming Senior Night game at Smith Center, Williams returned the favor by showing up uninvited and taking over the mic.
“You’re not the only one when it comes to interrupting people’s press conferences,” Williams said, sending the room into laughter. “Uninvited!”
The exchange was all in fun. And yet, Williams still managed to interject an unintended moment of seriousness before returning the stage to his senior captains on his way out the door.
“You guys enjoy these two,” he said to the gathered media members, “because I’ve enjoyed the crap out of them.”
Pinson and Berry will play their final home game Tuesday when the Tar Heels take on Miami at 9 p.m.
While Senior Nights are always special, particularly at place like UNC where there are are actually seniors of significance to recognize virtually every season, this one promises to be more emotional than most.
Not only are the guests of honor national champions, having played key roles in helping the Tar Heels to consecutive Final Fours and last year’s title, they’re also part of a recruiting class that had the faith to stick with Williams through the darkest days of UNC’s now-concluded investigation by the NCAA.
“I think the reason why Coach Williams will show a lot of emotion is because we took a chance on his program when things weren’t going good and when people told us we were going to have all these violations,” Berry said. “Me, Theo and (2017 ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson), we stuck with it and didn’t listen to what everybody else was saying.
“Coach did a great job of letting us know that nothing was going to happen. At the same time, that could scare you a little bit. But we stuck with it. We came here and did what we wanted to do. That was to make an impact on this program and win the national championship.”
Berry’s legacy at UNC is an impressive one. The 6-foot guard has amassed 1,196 points, 335 assists and 173 3-pointers in his 136-game career with the Tar Heels. He has won MVP honors at both the ACC and NCAA tournaments to go along with his championship ring, accomplishments that have qualified him to have his jersey hung from the Smith Center rafters.
Though Pinson has played more of a supporting role until this season, his contributions have been no less meaningful.
Once described as the Tar Heels’ Swiss army knife because of his versatility, the 6-6 wing has overcome numerous injuries to become the ultimate “glue guy” in both the locker room and on the court. He currently leads the team with 133 assists while averaging career high totals of 9.1 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.
Looking back on all they’ve accomplished, Berry described the past four years as “a dream come true.”
But it hasn’t always been celebrations, awards and standing ovations.
Berry remembered back to his freshman year and the doubts he had while spending more time on the bench than on the floor behind starting point guard Marcus Paige. He said he blamed Williams for his lack of playing time back then, but eventually came to realize that he was the one holding himself back.
It’s a revelation that came to him through the help of his friend and roommate Pinson. Conversely, it was Berry that helped Pinson through his own difficult times while dealing with three separate foot injuries.
The two have grown so close despite their differing personalities, that Pinson will be the best man at Berry’s wedding next summer.
“Our relationship with each other is so strong because we went through the grind together,” said Berry, the more understated and serious of the two. “There were times when we sat in our living room and just talked it out and made sure we kept the same mindset. We helped each other through this process.”
Now that the process is nearing its end, both players admit to feeling a little bittersweet.
“Ever since the Notre Dame game (on Nov. 12), I’ve been a little emotional about every game we’ve played, just understanding that it’s coming down to the wire of my career here” Pinson said. “It’s tough.”
While Pinson has never been shy about being in front of an open microphone, especially when he’s crashing someone else’s party, he admits to being a little apprehensive now that he’ll have the stage all to himself.
He predicted that he’ll shed a tear or two during his traditional postgame senior speech Tuesday. But then, he probably won’t be alone.
“It’s been one helluva ride,” he said.